A Reflection on the Sustainability of the Merkel Doctrine

Christina Burjan

Image Credit: European People's Party

The theme for International Women’s Day 2022, which serves to commemorate the social and political achievements of women around the globe, was ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’. It is hard to reflect upon the influential contributions made by women within the contemporary international sphere without lending one’s thoughts to the tenure of former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.


Throughout Merkel’s chancellorship between 2005 and 2021, she forged a reputation as the de facto leader of the European Union (EU), the ‘last defender of liberal internationalism’. The tones of dependability and capability which came to define her time in office were met with commendations such as Time magazine’s most influential person of 2015 and a listing as the Forbes magazine’s most powerful woman for ten years in a row. Yet as the incumbency of present Chancellor Olaf Scholz gets well and truly underway, an opportunity for a holistic and perhaps clearer-eyed assessment of the Merkel era presents itself.


While the theme of International Women’s Day 2022 speaks to a literal form of sustainability, referring specifically to the role of women in climate change mitigation and response, such an assessment of Merkel’s contributions brings into question whether the ‘merkelist’ credo indeed possessed a necessary degree of sustainability, as it were, appropriate for the international milieu of 2022 more broadly.


Merkel’s pragmatic reputation on the international stage stemmed primarily from her efforts to consolidate multilateral cooperation. In March 2007, for example, she signed the Berlin Declaration, which was intended to inspire a renewed process of EU reform. This was shortly followed by a commitment to further integrated transatlantic free-trade vis-à-vis the agreement for the Transatlantic Economic Council, as well as the establishment of a more centralised EU leadership and foreign policy direction in the form of the Lisbon Treaty, which Merkel respectively signed in April and December of the same year. Her commitment to international collaboration in this way earned her the plaudits of leaders such as former United States President, Barack Obama, who referred to Merkel as his “closest international partner”, and current United Kingdom Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who likewise recently dubbed the leader a “titan” of diplomacy. Moreover, her key involvement in the navigation of the euro-zone crisis that began in 2009, as well as her decision to open Germany’s borders to over one million refugees in 2015, were lauded as triumphs, especially by the Liberals of the international community.


For all the praise that dominated the Merkel era, however, it was by no means a tenure devoid of criticism. Although an outspoken advocate of climate change reform, upon the end of Merkel’s office, Germany’s own energy policy was largely deemed “disappointing” as it remains the world’s biggest producer of brown coal. Similarly, when the 2015 refugee policy–which in many ways came to constitute the cornerstone achievement of her chancellorship-was met with a fierce degree of political backlash, the result was a substantial degree of appeasement of the right from Merkel. Furthermore, according to political scientist, Ludger Pries, the policy itself “neither originated nor significantly intensified the refugee movement”.


Linking the points of critique levelled against Merkel’s doctrine is a note of concern regarding its suitability for the demands and anxieties of the current international state of play. In this vein, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Piotr Buras, noted that while “Merkel may have adroitly maintained the status quo across the continent over the past 15 years, the challenges that Europe faces now… require radical solutions, not cosmetic changes”.


In comparison, an implementation of radical solutions has, however, been starkly demonstrated by Scholz, particularly in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Alongside Germany’s agreement to financially target a number of Russian banks in late February, the Chancellor continued to further declare an about-face in defence spending with a one-off spike of €110 billion and an accompanying pledge that Germany’s annual military budget would immediately begin to exceed the 2-percent-of-GDP target stipulated for NATO nations (which Berlin was not expected to reach until 2024). Furthermore, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which served as a key point of tension between Washington and Berlin throughout Merkel’s term, has, within the space of a few days, similarly been halted by Scholz. In turn, amidst the announcements has been a growing voice of criticism questioning whether Merkel’s comparatively humble and accommodating foreign policy stance apropos Russia ultimately handed too much power to Putin and, by extension, in fact contributed to the developing situation in Ukraine.


It is difficult to imagine what the trajectory of the EU may have looked like sans the ‘Merkelism’ which so formidably imbued it for nearly two decades, and it is perhaps even more difficult to envisage the trajectory it will follow going forward. What is for certain, however, is that the immediate to mid-term future will continue to highlight the extent to which the foreign policy of the Merkel era was fit for purpose, or comparatively lacking thereof, with regard to a sustainable tomorrow. Indeed, for that, only time will tell.


Christina Burjan is a former China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. This piece was published as part of YAIA’s International Women’s Day Series.