(CN) — After 16 years at the helm of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing to leave public life and hand over the reins of the European Union's largest state to a new government led by the center-left Social Democrats.
On Thursday night, Merkel was honored by Germany's military with a torch-lit procession and a marching band at a ceremony for outgoing chancellors known as the Grand Tattoo or Grosser Zapfenstreich.
Behind the solemnity of the military tribute and an outpouring of gratitude for Germany's first female chancellor, though, is a sense that Merkel leaves behind a mixed legacy and exits the Federal Chancellery with a country facing more difficult times ahead, in large part due to decisions she made.
This reality was highlighted earlier Thursday when Merkel oversaw her last emergency coronavirus meeting. She announced strict curbs on the unvaccinated and said she supported making vaccination mandatory, a position in line with statements made by the incoming government.
These drastic – and controversial – measures come in response to a grim wave of coronavirus infections and deaths that has made Germany, for the first time, one of the EU's most afflicted countries.
At the military tribute, Merkel, a modest and deeply private 67-year-old chancellor, surprised many and provided a rare clue into her personal life by choosing to have the military band perform the music to a song by Nina Hagen, a punk music star who fled Communist East Germany to Western Germany.
In a recent interview, Merkel said she could identify with Hagen because they were of a similar age and both came from East Germany.
“Sixteen years as chancellor of Germany were full of events, often very challenging – politically and as a human being,” she said in a short speech before a small crowd of political leaders and aides.
She offered good wishes to the incoming chancellor, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, and his government, which will rely on the support of Greens and Free Democrats, a pro-business center-right party.
“Now it is up to the next government to find answers to the challenges that lie ahead and shape our future,” Merkel said. “For that I wish you, dear Olaf Scholz and the government you will lead, all the best and a lucky hand and much success.”
The new government is expected to be approved by the Bundestag next week. The coalition has made more social spending, combating climate change, a stern foreign policy and – as is customary for Germany – fiscal restraint as its cornerstones.
Merkel's party, the conservative Christian Democrats, fared very poorly at federal elections in September, further denting Merkel's legacy. She announced her intention to not seek reelection in 2018 and her party struggled to find a successor.
Her party's poor showing at the elections chimed with a narrative that's emerged in recent years that questions Merkel's decisions.
Since defeating former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, a Social Democrat, in 2005 Merkel has often been described as a progressive champion of democracy who bravely stood up to authoritarian leaders and calmly led the EU through multiple crises.
But critics contend Merkel failed to advance progressive policies, did little to bring more women into the highest positions in German politics and business and ill-advisedly chose to quickly phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster by 2022 and left Germany more dependent on Russian natural gas.
She is also censured for going soft on Russia and China in order to safeguard German business interests, though she backed sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
On the EU front, she is blamed for sowing discord and holding the EU back by forcing Greece and other poorer EU countries to cut public spending following the 2008 financial meltdown. Greeks burnt images depicting her in the likeness of Adolf Hitler and a large majority of Greeks still have a negative opinion of her.
Around the world, though, she gets high approval ratings and a Pew poll last year found her the world's most trusted leader. Forbes magazine has listed her as the most powerful women in the world for the past decade.
Many also question her decision in 2015 to allow 1 million asylum seekers into Germany – many of them refugees from the Syrian civil war – because they say it led to a rise of far-right parties across Europe. Others see her decision as the compassionate response of a caring and open-minded politician.
Some economists see the passage of a constitutional amendment by her government in 2009 that forbids the German government from running up debts as counterproductive and blamed for Germany's lack of spending on digital infrastructure. Still, under her watch Germany became the EU's most powerful economy and the bloc's undisputed political boss.
Many see in Merkel – a quantum chemist before she went into politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall – the perfect leader for a Europe that needed a solid hand at the rudder during a period of crises. She is praised for her pragmatic, down-to-earth, calm and poised leadership that saw no personal scandals.
In her speech on Thursday, she urged her successors and citizens to listen to reason and trust one another.
“The last two years of the pandemic in particular,” she said, have demonstrated “how important trust in political leaders, science, and public discourse really is.”
“I would like to encourage you in the future to look at the world from other people's perspectives as well,” she said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.