German chancellor Angela Merkel, center, arrives at a party convention of the Christian Social Union party, CSU, Bavarian only sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, accompanied by Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, right, and CSU Secretary general, Andreas Scheuer , in Munich, southern Germany, Friday Nov. 20, 2015. .( Peter Kneffel/dpa via AP)
By GEIR MOULSON, Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) — Angela Merkel marks her 10th anniversary at the helm of Germany on Sunday, becoming only the third post-World War II chancellor to hit that milestone. Over Merkel’s decade in charge, she has presided over Germany’s strong re-emergence on the world scene — showing leadership in the European financial crisis, pioneering the use of renewable energies and embracing a role as a key negotiator in the Ukraine conflict and a moral authority in Europe’s migrant crisis.
At home, the European Union’s most populous country has seen plenty of change, but Merkel has won over voters with an aura of reassuring stability that has earned her the nickname “Mutti” or “mom.” Even amid turbulence over her welcoming attitude toward refugees, there’s little sign of an alternative to Merkel.
Under Merkel, Germany has found a new assertiveness — at least in economic diplomacy — since the Eurozone debt crisis erupted in Greece. Berlin has been key to designing the response, a combination of aid in exchange for budget cuts and economic reforms, and has shown determination in applying it, despite widespread criticism abroad for what many view as a damaging focus on austerity. Since Merkel’s third-term government took office in 2013, Germany also has shown signs of playing a more active diplomatic role — in particular, anchoring the diplomacy-and-sanctions strategy over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Germany remains reluctant to expand its military role abroad, though it remains one of the biggest contributors to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and has armed Kurdish fighters in Iraq — a contrast to Germany’s previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts.
When Merkel took office in 2005, Germany’s unemployment was 11 percent, with more than 4.5 million people out of work. It had peaked a few months earlier at more than 12 percent. Under Merkel, the economy reaped the benefits of the package of welfare-state trims and economic reforms that were initiated by center-left predecessor Gerhard Schroeder. Merkel hasn’t had to inflict similarly painful reforms of her own on Germans, with the exception of an early move to gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 67.
Merkel’s government was able to keep the economy largely on track through the 2008-2009 economic crisis, with unemployment kept in check thanks to a government-backed short-term work program. Strong tax income generated by the healthy economy allowed Merkel to balance the budget, getting by without new borrowing for the first time since 1969 — one of her proudest achievements. Unemployment stands at 6 percent on Merkel’s 10th anniversary, with about 2.6 million registered jobless.
NOT SO CONSERVATIVE
Merkel has been relentlessly pragmatic, nudging her conservative Christian Democratic Union toward the center. Electoral math has twice forced her into coalitions with the party’s traditional rivals, the Social Democrats — in her first four-year term and again since 2013. That has allowed her to dominate the center ground of German politics. She has irked some supporters with a willingness to sacrifice conservative sacred cows — scrapping military conscription and, most dramatically, abruptly accelerating the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power plants following meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011. That move hurt her ratings in the short term but, in the long run, has removed divisive issues from German politics.