With Olaf Scholz at the Helm in Germany, a New, Uncertain Chapter

BERLIN – Angela Merkel was old fashioned: the woman who dominated European politics for the better part of two decades handed over her desk to the next German chancellor, thanked her staff, then walked to the door and walked out – her last exit.

After 16 years as Germany’s leader and unofficial leader of Europe, Ms Merkel on Wednesday left the position she first held when President George W. Bush was still in the White House in a privileged fashion.

“Congratulations, dear Mr. Chancellor, dear Olaf Schulz,” Mrs. Merkel said to her successor at a small meeting in the Chancellery. “I know from my own experience that it is a touching moment to be elected to this position.”

Ms Merkel said: “It is an exciting duty, a duty, and a challenging one too, but if you embrace it with joy, it is perhaps one of the most beautiful duties of being in charge of this country.

Long the world’s most powerful leader, Mrs. Merkel has been the central political figure in Germany and Europe with four US presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian prime ministers. Its constant growth in power has attracted admirers and detractors alike, but it has remained a unique source of stability on the continent through recurring crises.

Merkel, a Christian Democrat, has been criticized for failing to nurture a successor, and may eventually do so. Only – to the frustration of her party – was a member of her traditional opposition, Mr. Schulz, a Social Democrat and her last finance minister, who was sworn in on Wednesday after a campaign that promised continuity.

However, Ms Merkel’s departure marks the end of a transformative era for German politics that she herself described as “eventful and often very difficult” – and the beginning of a new and uncertain chapter for Germany and Europe.

“It was a great period during which I was chancellor of this country and I did big things,” Mr. Schultz said after he was formally handed over by the chancellery and its staff. “There were some big crises we had to deal with, and some of us survived them together.”

Mr. Schulz added that this is inspiring both, not just these events. “There has always been a confident cooperation between us. That is good, I think, because it shows that we are a strong and capable democracy where there is a lot of consensus among Democrats and cooperation.

Many who worked closely with the departing German chancellor point to her feeling of dedication and willingness to compromise as the basis of her power.

said Dalia Grybauskaite, who first met Ms Merkel in Brussels in 2005 and continued to cooperate with her during her decade-long tenure as Lithuania’s president. “And they were willing to compromise to achieve that outcome.”

The full imprint that Mrs. Merkel, the daughter of a priest from the former communist East, has left on her country and continent will only reveal itself in the coming years. But for now, the fulcrum of her legacy is widely seen as her decision in 2015 and 2016 to take in more than a million asylum seekers in Germany.

The decision sharply divided her country – particularly along the old fault line between East and West – and fueled the emergence of a far-right nationalist movement that has grown stronger than at any time since the Nazis.

But it also softened Germany’s image abroad and made her country a liberal beacon where populism was threatening the foundations of democracy in the West.

“Angela Merkel changed Germany’s image in the world – in a way that saved Germany’s honour,” said Nika Forotan, a migration expert and professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin. I countered all expectations that this frankly humanitarian gesture would come from Germany. This symbolic transformation, that Germany, a country with an ugly face, proved its rock and absorbed the people, is linked to Angela Merkel.”

Another period that defined her time in power was Europe’s debt crisis, touted by years of agonizing budget cuts as a way out – something that many Southern Europeans would not forgive after more than a decade.

“In parts of Europe, Ms. Merkel is viewed much more negatively than in other parts of the world,” Ms Frutan said.

The same is true of Germany itself: Merkel is hugely popular in the country’s more populous west, and she is hated in parts of the former communist east, where she grew up. The East became the stronghold of the Alternative for Germany, a party created in her reign and the first far-right party to reach the German parliament since World War II.

“I know my face is polarized,” Merkel admitted two years ago in the eastern city of Chemnitz after it became the scene of violent far-right riots. Towards the end of her term in office, protesters would organize weekly vigils outside the Chancellery and come to public events she attended and shout “Merkel must go!”

At the time, her approval ratings were dropping rapidly and it seemed that she might not succeed politically during her fourth full term. It was the pandemic that gave Ms. Merkel, a trained scientist with a notoriously calm temper, another honeymoon in the polls.

Mr. Schulz, who has been her chancellor for the past four years, has a very similar temperament and has benefited from similarities. “Not much will change,” he told staff at the chancellery on Wednesday.

“The transition from Merkel to Schulz is so harmonious that you have to ask: What is between these two?” The Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported in a recent article. Merkel has often been accused of failing to cement her successor. But maybe that’s not true.”

Merkel, to the chagrin of her party, said she would “sleep well into the night” knowing Mr. Schulz was running the country. She invited Mr. Schulz to accompany her to the G-20 meeting in Rome in October to introduce him to leaders like President Biden. I’ve involved him in every important decision since the election two months ago. The latter jointly chaired an emergency Covid-19 meeting with the governors of Germany’s 16 states.

During a military farewell party for Ms. Merkel last week, she wished Mr. Schulz – whom she called “Dear Olaf” – “All the best, a lucky hand and a lot of success”. He immediately responded with a compliment of his own. “Angela Merkel was a successful chancellor,” he said the same night on Twitter. “She has stood tirelessly for her country and in the 16 years in which so much has changed, she has remained true to herself.”

Many Germans have expressed pride at how smoothly Ms. Merkel handled the transition, drawing direct comparisons with former President Donald J. Trump and his supporters’ refusal to recognize Biden’s election.

“We are seeing a very good democratic transition where there is a basic consensus,” said Christoph Heusgen, a former top foreign policy adviser to Ms. Merkel, who took over the presidency of the Munich Security Conference this week. “I’m a bit proud of our democracy for the way it has managed this transition without schadenfreude, without hate, and without malice.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Ms Merkel watched from the visitors’ gallery in Parliament – where her family sat four times to watch the swearing-in – as lawmakers voted Mr Schulz into office. She got a warm applause from the room, before she quietly slipped out the back door.

From the moment she was sworn in in 2005, Mrs. Merkel has embodied a succession of firsts – the first chancellor born after World War II, the first woman from the former East, and the first woman. Now she has also made history by becoming the first modern chancellor to leave office, not by losing an election or a parliamentary vote, but by deciding that she has served long enough.

Among the people who have closely documented Merkel’s political career is Herlind Kohl, the photographer who began taking her picture in 1991, after she became Minister for Family and Children under Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In an early interview with Ms Kolbel, the outgoing chancellor insisted she wanted to “find the time to leave politics”. At 67, more than a decade younger than President Biden, and after a self-imposed period of rest and reflection, she is expected to refocus her energies on promoting the ideals and ideas she championed while in office, from global public health to development in Africa.

But by comparing Ms. Kolbel’s latest photos with those of a young Merkel, the 16-year tally can be seen with the help of Europe’s largest economy. Gone are the open and curious gaze, replaced by a more skeptical one.

“At first, she had sparkly eyes,” said Mrs. Culbel, “and now she looks at you, but the vitality is gone. The glare in her eyes is gone.”

On Wednesday, as she left the handover ceremony in the Chancellery, Mrs. Merkel appeared relieved, even happy. Walking to the door, she turned to Mr. Schulz.

“Now to work,” she said.

Contribute to reporting Christopher F Schwitz in Berlin and Alex Marshall in London.

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