What Angela Merkel’s exit means for Germany — and Europe

Take a look at these meetings of world leaders
from the past ten years and you’ll likely notice one figure. This is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one
of the most influential leaders of Europe. Her leadership spans 13 years and four terms. In that span, she became one of the most powerful
women in the world. But she recently stepped down as leader of
her party and she won’t be running for re-election. By 2021, not only will Germany lose one of
its longest-serving leaders — so will Europe. Merkel has dominated European politics for decades. So how did Angela Merkel become so powerful
and what does her exit mean for Europe? The Berlin Wall divided Germany’s capital
in half for almost 3 decades. This side was part of the prosperous and democratic
West Germany. And the other side was the impoverished communist
East Germany – a satellite state of the Soviet Union. But when the Wall fell in 1989, the East unified
with the West. And Germany quickly became one of the largest
and most populous countries in Europe. This is when Angela Merkel entered politics. She was elected to be a member of the new
parliament in 1990, but rapidly rose through the ranks. By ‘94 she was Minister of the Environment. And by 2000 she was head of her political
party, the CDU. While Merkel became more important in Germany,
reunited Germany became more important in Europe. It became a leader in the European Union. There were open borders between EU member
countries, to let people and trade pass through freely. And Germany led the effort to create the “Eurozone”
where 11 EU countries adopted the Euro as a common currency in 1999. These policies made EU countries more dependent
on each other. And in the early 2000s, the EU increasingly
looked to Germany, one of its most powerful economies, to be its leader. Starting in 2005, that leadership came
from Angela Merkel. Merkel was elected Germany’s Chancellor
and demonstrated a talent for building consensus. She engineered a “grand coalition” between
Germany’s biggest political parties from the right and the left. With this alliance behind her, Merkel solved
two of Germany’s biggest economic problems. She cut huge government spending and reduced
unemployment. Her ability to stabilize Germany’s economy
became particularly important when the EU faced a crisis.: “This Eurozone crisis has gone from bad
to worse.” “It is a high stakes game where the players
are world leaders and the wager is the world’s economy.” The global economic recession in 2008 hit
Greece especially hard. The country inched towards bankruptcy and
its economic decline brought down the value of the Euro, which hurt everyone in the Eurozone. But Merkel’s Germany was weathering the
recession better than anyone in Europe. So it fell on Merkel to rescue Greece with
her economic strategy: She demanded Greece pass huge spending cuts in exchange for loans from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. These were deeply unpopular across Europe. Cutting Greece’s pensions and services were
harsh tactics. But Merkel’s priority was to retain the
integrity of the Eurozone and Greece’s debt threatened that union: Merkel eventually got the 16 Eurozone countries
to support her plan and kept the Eurozone together, cementing her role as the unparalleled
but controversial leader of Europe. Within Germany, Merkel’s popularity continued
to grow. Germans called her “Mutti,” meaning
“mother,” for taking care of their economy. She even earned her own emoji, — representing
her trademark hand-gesture. And in 2013, she won her third term as Chancellor, but this term would turn out to be very different than the others. “The number of migrants coming in to Europe this year alone is now at more than 500,000.” “Almost 900 people drowned as they attempted the crossing from Libya to the EU. “Some countries are greeting them with open arms. Others are setting up fences with barbed wire on top.” In 2015, more than 1 million refugees fled
conflicts in Northern Africa and the Middle East and migrated to Europe. Merkel called on EU leaders to help take in
refugees. But several European nations pushed back,
as nationalist politicians in these countries
stoked anti-immigrant fears. This time, Merkel could not build a consensus. Migrants piled up in Europe’s southern countries,
causing a humanitarian crisis while undermining the solidarity of the EU. So Merkel acted alone. In 2015, Germany granted asylum to over 140
thousand migrants — more than any other European country. At first things went well. 33% of Germans said the country could take
on additional asylum-seekers. Many even met incoming trains carrying migrants
with support and supplies. But on New Year’s eve in 2015 the situation
changed. “A day after the allegations of mass sexual
assault were made public, Cologne continues to search for the perpetrators and for answers.” “The attackers are described as young men of Arab or
North African appearance.” A rash of sexual assaults and thefts changed
public opinion. After the attacks in Cologne, only 18% of
Germans felt the country could take in more asylees. And German public opinion reversed on Merkel too. A far-right party called the Alternative for
Germany or AfD, seized on the anti-immigrant sentiment among voters. 1.5 million voters who had previously backed Merkel’s
Grand Coalition in 2013, switched their support and voted for the AfD in 2017. Having lost support for her coalition government
in 2018, Merkel decided to step down as leader of her party, though she’ll remain Germany’s
Chancellor until her term ends in 2021. Merkel’s party recently elected Annegret
Kramp-Karrenbauer, as its next leader. She’s a moderate Merkel ally who could
very well become Germany’s next Chancellor. But for the rest of Europe, Merkel’s absence
could be more unsettling. Since the Eurozone and migrant crises, Europe
has seen nationalist political parties gain popularity in recent elections, threatening
the unity of the EU. And Merkel has gone from being a champion
of a united Europe to its last remaining strong defender. With Merkel stepping away, these nationalist
leaders could gain influence over the future of the European Union. And that’s something Merkel is very aware
of. So in this video, we touched briefly on the idea of a European identity. And if that’s something you’re interested in learning more about, you should check out this really great doc. called the “Story of Europe” on CuriosityStream. It walks you through the different chapters of European history. CuriosityStream is a subscription service that offers over 2,000 documentary and nonfiction titles from some of the world’s best filmmakers. You can get unlimited access to CuriosityStream starting at $2.99 a month and because you’re a Vox fan, the first 30 days are free if you sign up at curiositystream.com/vox and use promo code “Vox”.

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