With Olaf Scholz at the helm in Germany, an uncertain new chapter

BERLIN – It was vintage Angela Merkel: The woman who dominated European politics for nearly two decades handed her office to the next German Chancellor, thanked her staff, then walked to the door and made an exit – his last.

After 16 years as leader of Germany and unofficial leader of Europe, Merkel left the post she first held when President George W. Bush was still in the White House on Wednesday. in a characteristic way.

“Congratulations, dear Mr. Chancellor, dear Olaf Scholz,” Merkel told her successor at a small gathering at the Chancellery. “I know from my own experience that it is an emotional moment to be elected to this post.”

“It is an exciting, fulfilling duty, a stimulating duty too,” said Merkel, “but if you accept it with joy, it is perhaps one of the most beautiful duties there is in be responsible for this country.

Long the most powerful woman leader in the world, Merkel was the central political figure in Germany and Europe through four US presidents and five British prime ministers and eight Italians. Her constant growth in authority has drawn admirers and detractors, but she has remained a singular source of stability for the continent through repeated crises.

Criticized for failing to prepare a successor, Ms Merkel, a Christian Democrat, may well have finally done so. Only – to the chagrin of his own party – it is a member of his traditional opposition, Mr Scholz, Social Democrat and his last finance minister, who was sworn in on Wednesday after a campaign that promised continuity.

Yet Merkel’s departure marks the end of an era of transformation in German politics which she herself described as “eventful and often very difficult” – and the start of a new uncertain chapter for Germany. and Europe.

“It was a great time that you were chancellor of this country and you did great things,” Scholz said after she officially handed over the chancellery and its staff to him. “There were great crises that we had to face, some of which we overcame together. “

It brought us together and not just these events, ”added Mr. Scholz. “Between us, there has always been a very confident collaboration. That’s good, I think, because it shows that we are a strong, capable democracy, in which there is a lot of consensus among democrats, of cooperation.

Many who worked closely with the German Chancellor initially point to her sense of dedication and willingness to compromise as the basis of her power.

“She was – and she is – the person who was always deeply prepared, with a deep sense of responsibility, always looking for the result,” said Dalia Grybauskaite, who first met Merkel in Brussels in 2005 and continued to collaborate with her during her ten-year tenure as President of Lithuania. “And she was ready to compromise to get this result.”

The full imprint that Merkel, the daughter of a pastor of the former Communist East, left on her country and her continent will only be revealed in the years to come. But for now, the centerpiece of his legacy is widely seen as his decision in 2015 and 2016 to welcome more than one million asylum seekers to Germany.

The decision sharply divided his country – especially along the old East-West divide – and fueled the emergence of a far-right nationalist movement that has grown stronger than at any time since. the Nazis.

But it also softened Germany’s image abroad and established its country as a liberal beacon as populism threatened the very foundations of Western democratic order.

“Angela Merkel changed the image of Germany in the world – in a way she saved the honor of Germany,” said Naika Foroutan, immigration expert and professor at Humboldt University of Berlin. “It was against all expectations that this explicit humanitarian gesture came from Germany. This symbolic turning point, which Germany, the country with the ugly face, has proven to rock and taken the people, is associated with Angela Merkel.

The other period that defined his coming to power was the debt crisis in Europe and his strict prescription of long years of painful budget cuts to get out of it – which many southern Europeans still have not forgiven him. over a decade later.

“In some parts of Europe, Ms Merkel is viewed in a much more negative light than in other parts of the world,” said Ms Foroutan.

The same is true in Germany itself: very popular in the much more populated west of the country, Merkel is hated in parts of the former communist, where she grew up. The East became the stronghold of the Alternative for Germany, a party created under his leadership and the first far-right party to enter the German parliament since World War II.

“I know my face is polarizing,” Merkel conceded two years ago in the eastern city of Chemnitz, after it became the scene of violent far-right riots. Towards the end of her tenure, protesters held weekly vigils outside the Chancellery and showed up at public events she attended to shout “Merkel has to go!” “

At the time, her approval rating was rapidly dwindling and it looked like she might not be politically successful in completing her fourth term. It was the pandemic that gave Merkel, a trained scientist with a reputedly calm temperament, another honeymoon in opinion polls.

Mr Scholz, who has been his finance minister for the past four years, has a very similar temperament and has capitalized on the parallels. “Not much will change,” he told Chancellery staff on Wednesday.

“The transition from Merkel to Scholz is so smooth that you have to ask yourself: what’s in between these two? »The newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung put forward in a recent article. “Merkel has often been accused of failing to train a successor. But maybe that’s not true.

Much to the irritation of her own party, Merkel said she would “sleep well at night” knowing that Mr Scholz was running the country. She invited Scholz to accompany her to a Group of 20 meeting in Rome in October to introduce him to leaders like President Biden. She has involved him in all important decisions since the elections two months ago. Finally, the two jointly chaired an emergency Covid meeting with the governors of the 16 German states.

At a military farewell ceremony for Merkel last week, she wished Mr Scholz – whom she called “Dear Olaf” – “all the best, a lucky hand and much success”. He quickly responded with a compliment of his own. “Angela Merkel was a successful Chancellor,” he said the same evening on Twitter. “She has tirelessly defended her country and for 16 years in which a lot has changed, she has remained true to herself.”

Many Germans have expressed pride in the gentleness with which Merkel has handled the transition, making direct comparisons to the refusal of former President Donald J. Trump and his supporters to recognize Mr Biden’s election.

“We are witnessing a very good democratic transition where there is a basic consensus,” said Christoph Heusgen, the former chief foreign policy adviser to Merkel, who this week took over the presidency of the Munich Conference on Security. “I am a little proud of our democracy for the way it has handled this transition without schadenfreude, without hatred, without meanness.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Merkel watched from Parliament’s visitor gallery – where her own family had sat four times to watch her take the oath – as lawmakers voted Mr Scholz to power. She received a standing ovation from the bedroom, before slipping discreetly through a back door.

From the moment she was sworn in in 2005, Merkel embodied a series of firsts – first Chancellor born after World War II, first from the former East, first woman. Now, she has also made history by becoming the first modern chancellor to step down, not by losing an election or parliamentary vote, but by deciding that she had served long enough.

One of the people who has most documented Ms Merkel’s political career is Herlinde Koelbl, a photographer who started portraying herself in 1991, just after taking office as Minister for Families and Children under Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In a first interview she gave to Ms Koelbl, the outgoing Chancellor insisted she wanted “to find the right time to quit politics”. At 67, she is over ten years younger than President Biden and, after a self-imposed period of rest and reflection, she can be expected to refocus her energies on promotion. of the ideals and ideas she championed during her tenure, from global public health to development in Africa.

But when you compare the most recent photos of Ms Koelbl to those of young Merkel, the record of 16 years serving Europe’s largest economy is visible. No more open and curious gaze, replaced by a more distant and skeptical gaze.

“At first she had very keen eyes,” Ms. Koelbl said, “and now she’s looking at you, but the liveliness is gone. The glow in her eyes is gone.

As she left the Chancellery handover ceremony on Wednesday, Merkel appeared relaxed, happy even. Walking towards the door, she turned to Mr. Scholz.

“And now to work,” she said.

The report was provided by Christopher F. Schuetze in Berlin and Alex marshall in London.

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