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Merkel’s abiding legacy

Evaluating the key climate and migration policies of Angela Merkel, the longest-serving head of government in the EU

by Ivan Kanev

The first female Chancellor has dealt with more crises than arguably anyone since at least World War 2. From her instrumental role in the global financial crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, Angela Merkel’s track record puts her among the most accomplished leaders in contemporary history. Compared to the rest during her four terms in office, two major issues will have had a longer-lasting political and social impact on generations and chancellorships to come. Namely, integral climate and migration policies advanced in the last decade.


In the 1970s and 1980s, anti-nuclear sentiment took off in Germany. Mass protests occurred following nuclear accidents in the United States and Ukraine, respectively. In fact, one of the major legacies of this movement was the Green Party foundation. As part of the Gerhard Schroeder-led Government, the Greens played a crucial role in limiting the lifespan of nuclear power stations to 2021, an initiative starkly opposed by CDU’s chairwoman at the time, Angela Merkel.

Fast forward twelve years, Frau Merkel, in coalition with the market-orientated Free Democratic Party, extended nuclear reactors’ operation. She even went as far as labelling her predecessor’s legislation “absolutely wrong” because it would prove problematic to meet climate targets with the set nuclear exit and reduced dependency on coal.

Nevertheless, in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the Chancellor did a complete one-eighty.

The accident in Japan convinced Merkel to transform the country’s economy into nuclear-free and low-carbon. Berlin’s plan, better known as ‘Energiewende’, to combat climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions officially commenced. Thus, the state moved to the forefront on the global stage in the fight for a greener, decarbonised future.

According to AGEB, renewables’ share in gross power consumption has roughly doubled between 2010 and 2020. Moreover, the Federal Government surpassed its goal to decrease emissions by 40% compared to 1990 levels. In terms of nuclear sources, the state is bound to discharge them entirely by the end of 2022, a year later than the SPD-Greens original pledge. Merely six plants are still functional compared to the 18 a decade ago. However, the determination to phase out nuclear reactors relatively abruptly proved to be troublesome. The most robust European economy became heavily reliant on coal and gas to meet demand. In turn, the shift led to an upsurge in costs for consumers and industry alike, as well as higher projected greenhouse gas emissions this term. Greater dependency on fossil fuels has resulted in two contentious Cabinet decisions.

First, in addition to a refusal to advance a 2038 deadline to give up coal, the grand coalition adopted a deficient 2019 climate law. After a group of North Sea islanders fearing inundation challenged the law, the Constitutional Court ruled that it must be updated to mitigate climate’s impact on future generations. Prodded by the ruling, the German Government passed a more ambitious bill which would see Germany aim for a 65% cut in carbon emissions by 2030, 10% up from the original goal, and carbon-neutrality by 2045, brought forward by five years. The country became the first among G7 members to declare such an early decarbonisation date, as well as the pledge to enhance international climate financing significantly.

“It’s not as if we’ve done nothing, but it’s true that not enough has been done to reach the aim of staying well under [a global average temperature rise of] two degrees and as close to 1.5 as possible,” conceded Merkel amid the fallout of the floods across Europe. “That is not just true of Germany, but of many countries across the world, which is why we need to increase the tempo.”

Second, the Climate Chancellor – a nickname reflecting her long-standing engagement to emission cuts – has staunchly supported Nord Stream 2, widely-opposed Russian undersea gas pipelines to Germany. The project is set to double gas shipments – seen as a transitional fuel – to the country at the cost of increasing Russia’s influence in Europe and depriving Ukraine and Poland of vital transit fees. However, the US and Germany have recently committed not only to counter attempts to use the network system as a political weapon and reimburse costs but also to support the diversification of the aforementioned Eastern European states’ energy sources.

Photo courtesy of Gerd Altmann via Pixabay


In a like manner of solidarity, Angela Merkel’s Government opted to keep borders open during the European migrant crisis despite instantaneous dissatisfaction within CDU/CSU and the German public. She refused to put an upper limit on asylum applications and called for redistribution of refugees across the EU, arguing that people “come to us from the hell of a civil war.”

As a consequence of the vast influx, Alternative for Germany (AfD) – a nationalist, anti-immigration, and anti-Islam party – grew into the most prominent opposition force to the grand coalition in 2017. Shortly before she supported the policy, the nationalists had performed underwhelmingly, galvanising about 3% in opinion polls. Nevertheless, AfD capitalised on the Government’s inadequate response to the widespread notion that the crisis had gotten out of hand to enter parliament for the first time.

Elsewhere in Europe, the “Visegrád group” – an alliance between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – further fractured Europe’s political landscape by opposing the Commission’s plan, initially proposed by Frau Merkel, to relocate refugees in the EU. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, echoing the concerns of many Eastern European nations, blamed Germany’s open border policy for the crisis. In a similar vein to AfD, high-ranking Visegrád Four political figures used and enforced fear towards foreigners, Islam, and terrorism to manipulate public opinion and gather support for populist, right-wing movements.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Chancellor was lauded by the press, human rights activists, and then US president Barack Obama. Merkel’s refugee policy even earned her the nickname “Mutti” (mother), representing her empathy and care to the less fortunate. However, the initial motives of Merkel to open the borders were not solely driven by solidarity:

“It was an extraordinary situation, and I made my decision based on what I thought was right from a political and humanitarian standpoint,” she clarified in 2017.

At the height of the refugee crisis, Germany found itself with an ageing population and in urgent need of specialised workers. According to a survey of over 23,000 German companies, businesses faced difficulties in filling long-term vacancies. The condition of the labour market signalled a colossal threat to economic growth. Angela Merkel recognised and addressed the looming peril. The state’s comprehensive integration programme swiftly integrated newcomers by enabling them to receive language and vocational training.

“More than 10,000 people who arrived in Germany as refugees since 2015 have mastered the language sufficiently to enrol at a German university,” the Guardian noted in 2020. “More than half of those who came are in work and pay taxes. Among refugee children and teenagers, more than 80% say they have a strong sense of belonging to their German schools and feel liked by their peers.”

After spending billions on the programme, Germany has reaped the benefits. Estimates indicate that almost half a million refugees participated in job training or worked at the end of 2018 – merely three years after the crisis began. Not to mention that integration has also mobilised civil society. Over 50% of Germans have supported – either financially or through their own involvement – the accommodation of refugees. The personal engagement has boosted backing for migrants and proved the open border policy successful. Capital inflow happened at a critical time and resulted in economic prosperity that, in hindsight, justified the Chancellor’s gamble. As the situation in Germany stabilised, AfD experienced a downturn, culminating in a poor showing in the 2021 German elections.

Angela Merkel has a long history of prioritising economic interests. External criticism has been primarily directed towards such policies; however, she has endeavoured to cushion the consequences of political decisions. The German leader fully understood that Germany was responsible for setting an example and aiding societies of less advantageous contexts. Hence, the Chancellor’s approach to the refugee crisis incorporated both her pragmatic style and adherence to European and humanitarian values. Merkel’s U-turn on nuclear power further demonstrates her adaptability – an ability to compromise and adjust agenda to society’s shifting circumstances, needs, and priorities. The renewable transition and migration have shaped public perception of Merkel’s capacity as the most influential decision-maker in Europe. Now, Germany’s next head of Government must build upon her legacy and retain the German position at the centre of EU policy-shaping.


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