Europe and the world stage will miss Angela Merkel


Her quiet intelligence, calm demeanour and guidance grew to be valued as the nondescript former science student became a leading figure among Western democracies.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Sun 11 Jul 2021, 11:08 PM

When the long-serving chancellor of Germany gave her final speech to the Bundestag in late June, Angela Merkel characteristically avoided sentimentality. But many can’t help but feel a pang of regret as the reassuring presence leaves the world stage.

Her quiet intelligence, calm demeanour and guidance grew to be valued as the nondescript former science student became a leading figure among Western democracies and arguably the most respected head of government in the world.

In her 16 years leading Europe’s largest economy, Merkel helmed Germany and assisted Europe through uncertain and at times turbulent waters, facing daunting journeys through the Great Recession of 2008 as well as a Eurozone debt crisis, the return of pronounced populism and nationalism, and the arrival of desperate refugees inundating Europe. She then faced a confusing presidency in the United States that seemed bent on destroying long-standing relationships, and finally, a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

Few, if any, will likely say Merkel handled it all perfectly. But compared to the changing roster of other world leaders, she was clearly the most steadfast figure through it all.

Today she might be more respected outside Germany than within it, but her rise to power and subsequent political longevity surprised many in the foreign community. She just didn’t seem the type to become a political leader.

Raised in East Germany during the Cold War, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then worked as a research assistant. Her initial foray into politics was as a spokesperson for East Germany’s first democratically elected government. Upon reunification of the country, she eventually became a protégé of Chancellor Helmet Kohl.

Like Kohl, Merkel is not noted for her flamboyance or striking charisma. And therein is one key to her success. She fits the German term of “leading from the middle”, which is what the country seems to value today. With its 20th-century history a cautionary tale about fiery politicians, today the nation seems to want what some call a “post-heroic leader”. Her soporific oration in German can be accepted, even be soothing, if she proves a capable manager and keen strategic thinker.

Today some in Germany even call her “mutti”, or mother, while others liken her to a kindly headteacher who is willing and able to patiently explain even the most complex issues.

First elected chancellor when Tony Blair was prime minister of the UK, Jacques Chirac led France and Silvio Berlusconi headed Italy, Merkel has not only far outlasted her peers in Europe, but also been an important force binding the EU together. Along with France, Germany has been steadfast in advocating an always stronger bloc even as some member countries became disenchanted.

Though criticised for austerity when some Eurozone member nations faced sovereign debt crises, Merkel’s stability provided a firm hand and none of the troubled nations dropped the euro as a common currency — though they are quick to point out that Germany seems to benefit most from the euro.

Another huge challenge was dealing with waves of refugees that washed over the continent starting in 2014, some fleeing war in Syria, others escaping conflict and desperation in Africa. Despite increasing opposition from various quarters, Merkel remained clear with her policy that humanitarian concerns required continued acceptance of refugees. Today Germany continues to be the recipient country for the largest number of asylum seekers in Europe, though the story of how well that will work out in Germany and the EU as a whole has yet to be written.

Pragmatic and not an ideologue — to the dismay of theoreticians on both ends of the political spectrum in Europe — Merkel seems above all an exceedingly decent person. Her upbringing in the Lutheran church and reported continued dedication to its tenets have resulted in a quiet determination to do the right thing and a clear moral compass.

But even after all these years, those who watch most closely are not sure they know the real Angela Merkel. She remains an enigmatic figure on some levels.

Sociologist Wolfgang Streeck told the Press that he thinks she is “a postmodern politician with premodern, Machiavellian” tendencies.

Dirk Kurbjuweit, biographer and reporter for magazine, said while growing up in East Germany Merkel mastered the art of silence. In governance she is cautious and her words at times inscrutable.

“She waits and waits to see where the train is going and then she jumps on the train,” he says.

If so, the train runs on time and danger is resolutely cleared from the track. Her Covid-19 crisis management skills resulted in a 72 per cent approval rating among Germans surveyed this summer, an enviable and rarely achieved level of trust for any elected leader in the Western world.

She is also trusted by even those who are hardened by the cynical give-and-take of politics. Barack Obama’s last phone call as US president was to Merkel, when he reportedly urged her to stay on and provide stability in Western leadership.

Ever the trusty administrator, she did stay on, clearly unaware that she along with other leaders would face one of the great challenges for public management in modern times: a global pandemic.

That work is largely behind her now as she takes a victory lap. Last week she met the latest UK prime minister but seemed to have a grander time with Queen Elizabeth as the two influential women stood side-by-side for a photo-op in public for perhaps the last time.

Next week she goes on to the US to meet the current president, a man whose outlook is more akin to hers than the previous occupant of the White House.

These are uncertain times. As the pandemic eases and we take tentative steps back toward our former lives, many sense that things have profoundly changed.

Many who follow European affairs say that notion is reinforced by the departure of Chancellor Merkel. They will instinctively look for her at the next gathering of world leaders, feeling something is fundamentally amiss in her absence.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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