BERLIN – 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.
It remains to be seen how Merkel's move to open the door to Syrian refugees flowing into Europe will play out; conservative critics have decried a perceived loss of control and order, and complain that Germany's capacity to welcome newcomers is exhausted. Still, under her leadership, the country has quietly undergone a shift in its attitude toward immigration. Where the mainstream position was once that foreigners should eventually go home, there's now widespread acceptance that Germany is a country that welcomes immigrants.
Traditionally a supporter of nuclear power, Merkel made an about-turn after the Fukushima disaster and announced all of the country's reactors would be shut off by 2022 as part of the "Energiewende" — roughly, "energy turnaround." She embarked upon one of the world's most ambitious plans for renewable energy, pledging that sources including wind and sun would make up 40-45 percent of Germany's energy mix by 2025, and 55-60 percent by 2035. The decision was popular in Germany, but readying Europe's largest economy to switch power sources has proven complicated. Germany's coast and flat northern plains offer plentiful wind energy, but planning the ugly power lines to get that electricity to the southern industrial heartland is hitting resistance. In Merkel's decade, Germany's energy mix has gone from 10 percent renewables to 25.8 percent through 2014. In June when Germany hosted the G-7 summit in Bavaria, Merkel was able to use her own record to help leverage a commitment from the other countries, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and the U.S., to move away from using fossil fuels by the end of this century.
Few people would have expected Merkel to become such a long-lasting leader after she barely won Germany's 2005 election. She had turned off voters with talk of far-reaching reforms and nearly blew a huge poll lead to finish only just ahead of then-Chancellor Schroeder's Social Democrats. Merkel then emerged atop a coalition of the rival parties. As chancellor, she dropped talk of deep reform and spoke instead of taking "many small steps" to revive the economy — an approach that has continued to serve her well in various policy areas.
Merkel is the first woman and first person to grow up in communist East Germany to serve as chancellor — reaching the peak of German politics via an improbable route. She entered politics in her mid-30s after an early career as a physicist behind the Iron Curtain. As communism crumbled, she joined a short-lived new political group, Democratic Awakening. She was a spokeswoman for East Germany's first and only democratically elected leader before being thrust into Chancellor Helmut Kohl's first post-reunification Cabinet as minister for families and women. Merkel also served as environment minister in the 1990s, helping to negotiate the Kyoto accord to curb greenhouse gas emissions. She was elected CDU leader in 2000, benefiting from a corruption scandal that erupted after Kohl acknowledged accepting illegal party donations.
Merkel hasn't said whether she will seek a fourth four-year term in 2017, though so far it's been widely assumed in Germany that she will. By the time of her last victory in 2013, she faced no serious rivals in her own party. The center-left Social Democrats, Germany's other main party, have struggled for years to get support of much more than 25 percent — more than 10 points short of Merkel's conservatives. Merkel has shown no sign of grooming a successor, and no obvious long-term replacement is in the wings despite misgivings in the conservative ranks over the migrant influx.
Asked a week ago about her future, she refused once again to say whether she will seek a fourth term — something she would have to do to pass Helmut Kohl (16 years) as longest-serving chancellor. Political scientist Herfried Muenkler, a professor at Berlin's Humboldt university, says nobody would have predicted 10 years ago that Merkel would be in power for so long. But at this point there are no serious challengers: "I don't see anyone in the current situation who would stand against her," he said.
And true to form, her spokesman Steffen Seibert said Friday he didn't know of any special plans she'd made to mark her 10th anniversary — and she was making no public appearances.
Frank Jordans and David Rising contributed to this story.