On the left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her typical hand gesture, the 'Merkel-raute' (known in English as Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or triangle of power), and on the right she crosses her hands as the election estimates are broadcast on television at the Christian Democratic Union headquarters in Berlin on September 26, 2021. Photos: AFP / Ina Fassbender

Now that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is leaving power, is it OK to suggest her time in office wasn’t one of bold leadership?

Media acclaim, much from outside of Germany, has been heaped on her 16 years as head of government. Just Google the words “praise” and “Merkel” to get a flavor of the adulation.

And indeed, compared with other Western leaders, she stands out for carrying her nation through difficult times while maintaining German stability – the global financial crisis, foreign hostilities (read: Russia), migration controversies, European disunity and Covid-19.

Other democratic leaders who, during the period of Merkel’s reign, seemed destined for political stardom came up far short. Remember George W Bush? Crashed on the shoals of the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis. Tony Blair? Undone by being dubbed Bush’s Iraq lap-dog. Nicolas Sarkozy? Tainted by scandal.

A series of Italian leaders touted for bringing new ideas to a chaotic polity ended up on the ash heap of broken promises.

Still, it’s worth remembering it wasn’t so much audacious leadership that contributed to her political longevity. Merkel excelled in fence-straddling.

Take immigration. In 2015, she was widely praised for welcoming a million refugees to Germany, an act that provided her and her country with a shining image of caring and empathy. At the time, Merkel was hailed as the new “Leader of the Free World,” in pointed contrast with erratic US president Donald Trump.

But remembrance of that brief period ignores what has happened in the years since: Merkel pulled in the refugee welcome mat, arranged a European Union bribe for Turkey to keep migrants out of the continent, deported thousands of refugees – many from Afghanistan – and blocked thousands of others from entering Germany by crossing Europe’s theoretically open borders.

“It is vitally necessary to know who comes in and who leaves the [visa-free] Schengen area,” she said last year. Her successor will have to figure out how to handle a new wave, mostly from Afghanistan, now that the fundamentalist Taliban group has returned to power.

In addition, Merkel repeatedly espoused a mythical, unified EU solution to migration, in which migrant populations would be dispersed throughout Europe. In fact, she and other EU members left Italy and Greece to cope with the continued influx of migrants on their own.

Merkel’s tolerant attitude toward authoritarian governments within Europe contrasted with her label as Free World leader. Until recently, her Christian Democratic Union party allied itself with Hungary’s far-right, anti-immigrant Fedesz party and shielded it from a formal European Union censure. The motive: cozying up to Fedesz leader Viktor Orban was key to getting Ursula von der Leyen, a German Merkel associate, the important job of European commissioner.

Merkel handled Poland lightly, despite insistent EU criticism of undemocratic power grabs in Warsaw, especially as regarded transforming the Polish judiciary into a partisan institution.

“Afraid of a conflict with Poland and Hungary, Merkel has done too little to denounce the violation of the rule of law in both countries. Her restraint has achieved nothing,” said Piotr Buras, a political scientist and member of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

Merkel has been forgiving of non-European autocracies as well.

She resisted sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine and  Crimea until the 2014 shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine. Then, while willing to levy economic sanctions on Russian individuals, she gifted the Russian president with a big prize: completion of the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline.

Nord Stream 2 will let gas flow directly from Russia into Germany and evade a pipeline that passes through Ukraine, which Moscow wants to dominate. In effect, Nord Stream 2 allows Russia to keep supplying big Western Europe customers even if, for some reason, it decides to block deliveries to Ukraine. In going ahead, Merkel dismissed Washington’s and Eastern European countries’ argument that Nord Stream 2 represented a security threat. The easterners fear energy blackmail.

Show who’s boss

They may be right. Russian energy company Gazprom, developer of the pipeline project, is already trying to show the EU who’s boss. Gazprom is half-owned by the Russian government and wants the EU to shorten its timeline for formal certification of Nord Stream 2. As a pressure point, Gazprom is refusing to increase gas supplies through the pre-existing Ukraine pipeline that would help ease a budding European fuel shortage.

Though Merkel routinely criticizes China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and suppression of the country’s Uighur Muslim minority, she mainly signals her discontent by lame calls to “seek dialogue.” Last year, while evidence built about mass re-education camps that housed tens of thousands of Uighurs, Merkel pushed through a new investment agreement with Beijing on the EU’s behalf. The European Parliament refused to ratify it, over human-rights concerns.

Regarding relations with both Russia and China, Merkel firmly believes in what Germans call Wandel durch Handel – change through trade – the notion that open commerce inevitably leads to political liberalization. It’s a convenient PR strategy, as it seemed to make Merkel appear concerned, even if doing little. In any event, Moscow and Beijing headed in the opposite direction: keeping up foreign business, while deepening domestic oppression.

These fence-straddling approaches were in line with what Germans call Merkelantism, a play on words that refers to Germany-first mercantilism that places expansion of export markets above all other concerns. German companies invest heavily in Eastern Europe and especially Poland; they also invest in factories in China and sell machinery and cars there. Chinese commerce helped Germany cope with slow growth during the Covid pandemic.

Finally, Merkel responded to Europe’s piece of the global financial crisis by forcing less well-off southern European countries to slash spending for pensions, health care and education, supposedly for their own good. She further expressed in moral terms Germany’s opposition to increased government deficits. Southerners were lazy, she intimated; she once suggested that Greece’s problems were caused because Greeks take too much vacation.

Merkel relented on the hardline approach to deficit spending when France, her partner in leading EU economic policy, demanded that governments be allowed to expand budgets during the pandemic.

Such wavering might saddle other leaders with a reputation for flip-flop inconsistency. For Merkel it provided positive opinion where it counted most: at home.

In Germany, she’s seen as a supreme pragmatist. Her Goldilocks-style decision-making keeps Germany on an even keel, where it wants to be: When policies created too hot a political soup (migration), or too cold (the economic crisis), she backed off. Alternately criticizing and cottoning to Russia and China exemplified her staunch middle-of-the-road pragmatism: Criticism preserved her image as a caring politician while coddling preserved Germany’s key economic interests.

Now she’s giving way to a new government. Given the closeness of Sunday’s national vote, it will take time for a new coalition to take shape, perhaps three months. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which won less than a quarter of the vote, trailed the rival Social Democratis, who harvested almost 26%.

The campaign offered little drama, so it’s not clear why a new government would stray far from Merkel’s habitually fence-sitting approaches.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.