Germany: Award of highest national honour triggers debate over Angela Merkel’s legacy

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented former Chancellor Angela Merkel with the country’s highest honour on Monday at a ceremony in Berlin. Ms Merkel, who was head of government for 16 years, was honoured with the Großkreuz des Verdienstordens (“Grand Cross of the Order of Merit”) for her contribution to German political life.

The national honour has been received by only two previous chancellors: Konrad Adenauer in 1954 and Helmut Kohl in 1998.

“For 16 years you served Germany with ambition, with wisdom, with passion,” said President Steinmeier in his address during a ceremony attended by, among other dignitaries, the current chancellor, Olaf Scholz. “As a woman and as an East German, you have once again left your mark on the office,” the president added.

Steinmeier, who served in Merkel’s government as foreign minister, praised her “enormous stamina, tremendous amount of self-discipline” in steering Germany, from 2005 to 2021, including through the pandemic, and the crises over eurozone debt and refugees..

The award has triggered a debate over Merkel’s legacy with some analysts questioning the basis of the president’s decision. They say it has come too close to the end of Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship to allow an assessment of her legacy and that that her actions arguably contributed to the problems Germany – and Europe – is now facing.

“To give Angela Merkel such an award now is totally premature and not the right award. It still isn’t clear what her merits are and what her failures are,” Albrecht von Lucke, a commentator for Blätter, a political journal, told DW. “We are only just beginning to see how problematic Angela Merkel’s legacy is,” he said.

Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, which kicked off shortly after Merkel left office, has understandably triggered a scrutiny of Germany’s past policy towards Moscow. Some critics are blaming Merkel for being “too soft on Russia” during her time in office.

Germany’s increasing energy dependence on Russia during Merkel’s tenure is also considered a mistake of her administration.

Defenders of Merkel’s leadership however note that her Russia policy was not much different to that of other chancellors, regardless of party. Germany had always cultivated closer economic, energy and cultural ties with Russia than many of Germany’s European allies.

In a rare public appearance last year, Merkel denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine, but defended her policy towards Moscow. “I therefore won’t apologize,” she told an audience in Berlin.

“She managed to keep the EU together and strengthen it in tumultuous times,” Lucas Schramm, a political scientist at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-University, told DW.

The banking, debt, and refugee crises all hit the European Union on Merkel’s watch. The United Kingdom left the bloc, while the United States under President Donald Trump was openly hostile towards it.

“Contemporary heads of state and government recently have said that Merkel is being missed at European Council summits because of her authority,” Schramm is quoted by DW as having said.

“The debate over Merkel’s legacy is far from over, and subject to events yet to fully play out. Whether well-deserved or premature, the decision to award her with the Order of Merit on Monday puts the retired chancellor back in the public spotlight,” DW said in a news analysis.

Felix Dappah with DW report

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