From ‘sick man’ of Europe to superpower: These 5 charts show how Merkel changed Germany

It’s hard to believe now that Germany, Europe’s biggest and most successful economy, was known as the “sick man of Europe” in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Germany’s economy has grown under the leadership of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, the conservative leader who has headed the government for the past 16 years. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, a quarter (24.7%) of the European Union’s entire gross domestic product was generated by Germany, according to Eurostat.

five charts looking at different parts of Germany’s economy, and society, during Merkel’s tenure. They show her legacy is not only one of prosperity but also one of missed opportunities and missteps, according to some political experts.


Germany’s export-oriented economy, one predicated heavily on manufacturing, has grown steadily during Merkel’s time in office, this chart shows, and has far outpaced its rivals in the U.K. and France.

Made with Flourish
When Merkel came to power in 2005, it’s worth remembering that Germany’s economy had experienced a recession just two years before. In the year she took office, Germany’s GDP stood at 2.3 trillion euros ($2.6 trillion), Germany’s federal statistics office data shows. In 2020, it was over 3.3 trillion euros.


The unemployment rate has also fallen while Merkel has been in office, from 11.1% in 2005 to 3.8% in 2020, according to data from the World Bank.

Germany has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU (although not the lowest, that accolade goes to its neighbor, the Netherlands). Nonetheless, Germany’s jobless rate is respectably low; in July 2021, the unemployment rate stood at 3.6% while for under-25s, the rate was higher, at 7.5%, Eurostat data shows.

Made with Flourish
Goldman Sachs analysts, assessing Merkel’s legacy, noted that while Merkel has had a “great success” in bringing down the unemployment rate, “much of the decline in structural unemployment likely stemmed from her predecessor’s (Gerhard Schroeder) reforms and was followed by a decade of stagnant real wages.”


The analysts noted that Merkel’s governments had nonetheless then “maintained sound public finances and adopted the constitutional debt brake, but responded forcefully during times of crisis, successfully shielding the labour market with the “Kurzarbeit” programme in 2008 and 2020.”

Kurzarbeit refers to Germany’s short-term work scheme whereby employers reduce their employees’ working hours instead of laying them off during times of crisis, like the Covid pandemic.
One area where Germany differs starkly from its counterparts France and the U.K. is its immigration landscape under Merkel. And perhaps it’s this area where her chancellery faced both widespread praise, and also attracted controversy.

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