In other areas, too, Ms. Merkel’s approach fell short. Her handling of the euro debt crisis helped secure the future of the bloc, but at the cost of leaving the underlying dynamics — overindebted southern countries and an unbalanced monetary union — untouched. Her conciliatory approach to Russia, not least over the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, looks ever more untenable as President Vladimir Putin ruthlessly consolidates his regime.
And while her inclination to avoid censuring Hungary and Poland for their breaches of the rule of law protected the bloc against disintegration, it sidestepped essential questions about the character of Europe. In Ms. Merkel’s absence, European leaders — including Germany’s next chancellor, whoever that is — will need to determine the bloc’s future course. How will it navigate the increased rivalry between America and China? To what extent will it embark on a more autonomous defense strategy? And how will it combat the rise of the far right?
At home, a similar pattern prevailed. Look at the economy. Yes, Germany’s export surplus came to an all-time high during Ms. Merkel’s tenure, and G.D.P. reached a record high in 2019. But it has come at the cost of an increased — some say excessive — dependence on the Chinese market, something Ms. Merkel has done little to address. What’s more, by shielding Germany’s car industry from more ambitious carbon-emission goals, Ms. Merkel has in effect exonerated managers from the need to innovate. That’s one reason German car companies are scrambling to keep up with their American and Chinese counterparts.
Then there’s climate change. Trying to protect key industries and fearing to impose too much change on voters, Ms. Merkel refrained from any far-reaching plan to cut emissions until late in her tenure. And though the share of renewable energy grew to 45 percent during her time in office, many experts agree that on its current trajectory, the country will not meet its goal of being carbon-neutral by 2045. Despite being seen abroad as the “climate chancellor,” Ms. Merkel has taken only very minor steps toward confronting the defining issue of our time.
It all adds up to a country at once cozy and cosseted, ignorant of the dangers waiting in the wings. Ursula Weidenfeld, an economics journalist and the author of a recent biography of the chancellor, has likened Ms. Merkel’s Germany to the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” Peaceful and prosperous, soothingly old-fashioned, self-satisfied to the point of delusion and naïve in a likable yet unnerving way: The analogy is apt.
Ms. Merkel protected the Shire, which is what Germans expected of her and why she won four national elections in a row. But in doing so, she fostered its peculiar detachment from the world and its unwillingness to change, innovate or even discuss different ways forward.
The chancellor also became stuck in her ways. Humble and unpretentious, she saw herself as a servant to her country. But in return for her service, dedication and competence, she came to expect — demand, even — blind trust. She has grown increasingly impatient with the forever chatter of Germany’s political class.