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24 September 2021

In charts: The legacy of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship

During her 16 years in power, the German premier has presided over both economic growth and rising inequality.

By Ben Walker

When the upcoming German elections usher in a new government, Angela Merkel will become the first German premier to leave office of their own accord, having chosen not to run.

Since coming to the chancellorship in 2005, Merkel has enjoyed considerable electoral success. She has built a coalition of new voters for her Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) and cemented the movement’s dominance for more than a decade. Polls have regularly put her approval ratings at more than 50 per cent.

But what has this achievement bequeathed to Germany?

In economic terms, Merkel has increased Germany’s dominance in Europe. By 2019, the German economy was 176 per cent bigger than it was in 2005. The French economy, by contrast, had grown by only 162 per cent over the same period, and the British and Italian economies, by just 149 per cent.

While youth unemployment saw sizeable jumps in France, the US and Italy during the 2008 financial crash, in Germany it remained low and has remained so since. Today, youth unemployment among Britons is triple that of their German counterparts.

Disposable income in Germany has also grown at a faster rate than in its European competitors. When Merkel took over, disposable income for the average German household was €760 more than the average household in Britain. As she leaves office, the difference between German and British households is now €5,000.

The above statistics, however, belie a growth in inequality across the country. In 2013, one German child in every four was found to either grow up poor, or grow up in households reliant on benefits.

The reality of the German economy under Merkel has been that an increasing proportion of the population have felt poorer, even as the number of people without employment has stayed low.

Such inequalities, however, have done little to damage confidence in Merkel and her party. No other party during her tenure came close to challenging the CDU/CSU alliance on who was considered best at handling the country’s finances.

The data suggests a country content with itself and content with continuity, and is reflected by a decline in internal migration under Merkel. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the number of Germans moving from the former eastern states to the west surged, then lessened. But the number of Germans moving westwards declined to a record low under Merkel's premiership, with the most recent years recording more Germans moving east than moving west.

How much of this can be linked specifically to Merkel's chancellorship is not easy to quantify. But we can see, in charts, the impact of some of her policies. It was a Merkel policy, for instance, to end military conscription, leading the total personnel strength of the Bundeswehr to decline by 34 per cent.

And perhaps most striking is her decision in 2015 to welcome more than one million refugees.

To take in refugees in an era of resurgence among the radical right was considered risky by commentators. But although Germany's far right AfD party broke through on a national parliamentary level in 2017, their support is in the minority. Just 16 per cent of Germans countenance the idea of voting for a movement of an anti-refugee tendency. When asked in 2016, whether they thought the country was coping well with the influx of refugees, 60 per cent of Germans thought yes. Three years later, in 2019, the same poll was put to the public again, and the figure, likewise, was 60 per cent.

Perhaps that is the greatest Merkel legacy of all.

[See also: What does France want from the 2021 German election?]

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