In 2015, as the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War unfolded, Angela Merkel was hailed as a “liberal hero” for insisting “we will manage”. Whilst other EU member states closed their borders, Germany welcomed more than a million people. Merkel’s enlightened stance, and Donald Trump’s subsequent election, saw her summarily appointed the new “leader of the free world”.
In fairness to Merkel, it was a label she immediately disavowed (Germany is both unwilling and unable to act as a global hegemon). But it was more ill-suited than many liberals realised. Merkel is, as one might expect of the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, a proud conservative. In 2010, for instance, she told party members that attempts to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed” and that those who did not accept the “Christian concept of mankind” were “in the wrong place”.
In line with this stance, Merkel last year called for the burqa to be banned “wherever it is legally possible” and declared: “The full-face veil is not acceptable in our country” (only the German constitution prevented her imposing a complete ban).
Today, having long frustrated efforts to introduce equal marriage in Germany, she allowed a free vote (the measure passed by 393 votes to 226) but personally opposed the move, stating that “For me, marriage in German law is marriage between a man and a woman and that is why I did not vote in favour of this bill”. (She did, however, generously rescind her opposition to same-sex adoption after meeting a lesbian couple with eight foster children.) In British politics, only Ukip now promotes such stances.
Even Merkel’s refugee stance is less liberal than her admirers suggest. She warned that “a situation like the one in the late summer of 2015 cannot, should not and must not be repeated” and imposed punitive restrictions on asylum seekers (expelling those without adequate documentation, adding Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to the list of “safe” countries and tightening family reunification laws). All this before one recalls how her austerity economics immiserated southern Europe. Germany’s doctrinaire fiscal conservatism has depressed European growth and living standards for nearly a decade.
It was Merkel’s blunt response to Trump’s election that earned her liberal plaudits: “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views. I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.” But faced with a figure as repugnant as Trump, too few paused to note that Merkel herself falls far short.