Times & Politics
German Chancellor Angela Merkel retired from public life following the September 2021 elections, thus bringing down the curtain on a record-breaking rule that lasted for four terms. During the 16 years in office, she outlived four US presidents, five British prime ministers, four French presidents and five Italian premiers.
Angela Merkel left a deep impact not just on Germany’s political landscape but her legacy as foremost leader of the EU will also continue to be critiqued, debated and celebrated in times to come.
Her manner of politics both at home and abroad pushed consensus-building at the core of her interactions. She dominated the European politics and brought a healing touch at a time when the EU’s unity has been threatened by the rise of populist, far-right politics as well as Brexit.
Controversies aside, no world leader has left power with such a high rate of approval as did Ms. Merkel. She will be remembered for her empathy, resoluteness and excellent negotiating skills, attributes of leadership she put to effective use.
The manner in which the world leaders have handled the corona pandemic and consequent economic challenges has shown a fresh light on an ongoing debate on the effectiveness of leaders to step up to the plate when confronted with as disruptive a global health challenge as Covid-19.
The commentary has often revolved around the proactive and empathetic leadership demonstrated by Ms. Jacinda Ardern, the popular prime minister of New Zealand as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel in leading the most effective national responses against the deadly virus.
The example of these two distinguished female leaders served as a foil to the shoddy work done by the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson that increased the costs for their respective nations not just economically but also in terms of loss of precious lives.
Chancellor Merkel started her public life as a minister for women and youth affairs in the cabinet of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After he stepped down from the top executive office following a financial scandal, the “Kohl’s girl,” as the newspaper called her, made her way up the political ladder and fast.
From the position of the general secretary of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), she moved on to become its leader as she turned her back on her mentor who facilitated her political rise. Though she made up with Kohl, later on, a wise move that enabled her to restore balance in and establish her grip on the party, Angela Merkel never looked back.
Merkel, who holds a PhD from the German Academy of Sciences, hails from former East Germany. The unification of Germany in 1989 opened a new world of massive opportunities. She was driven enough to grab these opportunities, the climax of which came when she was elected the German Chancellor in 2005, the first woman to get elected to the top political office of the country.
Winning four consecutive terms, Angela Merkel has been the face of modern Germany, a leader who has influenced the politics of her country in significant ways and ably led Germany through various crises at a time of massive global uncertainty and turmoil.
Two decisions particularly stand out in her political career. In 2015, she was the first European leader who allowed the entry of over one million immigrants from Syria and the Middle East into Germany, a decision that sharply polarised the country and made her the foremost target of severe personal attacks from the right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Her firm stand in favour of accepting refugees at a great political cost established her moral leadership. The act of opening up Germany for the refugees helped humanise the debate around asylum-seekers by endowing humanity on them. Time magazine acknowledged her leadership when it declared her as the person of the year in 2015.
After a serious nuclear accident that happened in Japan, Angela Merkel ordered the phasing out of the nuclear plants from Germany. This policy move of transformative nature greatly irked the powerful energy lobby that reached out to the political parties, mainly the opposition Green Party, in an attempt to undo the move and bring the nuclear plants back on into the energy mix.
Ms. Constanze Stelzenmuller read Merkel’s premature political obituary when she wrote in The Financial Times in 2005: “Ms. Merkel’s grand coalition … is merely an interregnum arrangement. With luck, it will last two years.” The fact that the woman, who was initially dismissed as a political no-body, could dominate the political landscape of her country for 16 long years speaks to her immense qualities of head and heart.
Christine Lagarde, former IMF chief, summed up Merkel’s leadership in 4 Ds: diplomacy, diligence, determination, and duty, while delivering a keynote speech at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management in August 2019.
Describing the German Chancellor as “one of the most broadly influential and widely respected leaders of our times,” Lagarde struck an incisive note on her leadership. Merkel has been a staunch advocate of an approach marked by “more cooperation and less confrontation” while dealing with the international crises.
At a time when populism and nationalism are sweeping across Europe and North America, Merkel raised her voice for concerted global action, be it climate change, refugees’ problem, or trade tensions.
Merkel’s attention to detail and her methodical approach to issues shaped her diligent disposition. Bringing her A-game to the problems, she was solution-oriented in her politics and public life. The Chancellor’s political journey, from being an eastern girl born in a religious family to the most coveted office is a story of steely determination at work in pursuit of larger goals.
Over the course of 16 years, Angela Merkel emerged as a powerful voice for a stronger, more interconnected and prosperous Europe. She practically led Europe amid serious crises that could, otherwise, rip the Union apart. Her conciliatory leadership was instrumental in crafting consensus on the convergences without allowing the divergences to rock the boat such as during the Euro crisis.
Chancellor Merkel tied Germany’s prosperity to that of Europe. Her vision for the EU was one based on the promotion and celebration of the foundational values of humanism, tolerance, democracy and freedom. According to the former IMF chief, Merkel’s emotional association with Europe is a “matter of the heart”.
Despite her track record of established public service at home, Angela Merkel was criticised for her evasive approach towards Russia and China. Germany, under her chancellorship, kept the lines of communication open with Kremlin.
In spite of taking a clear stand on Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and ill treatment of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and the rights abuses, she made sure that both Germany and Russia continued to work together on the construction of mega Nord Stream 2 gas project.
The US, under President Trump, in particular, and Europe, in general, have been critical of China over what they term as Beijing’s crackdown against the protestors in Hong Kong, the treatment of Uighur Muslims, and the increasing authoritarianism, etc. Chancellor Merkel stood up to the American pressure, refusing to block the access of Chinese technology into Germany.
On trade issues with China, she resisted the pressure with the announcement of a more stringent screening process for Chinese investments. As head of the European Council, Merkel played a major role in the conclusion of the EU-China investment agreement.
The critics point out that the Chancellor’s concern for human rights, freedoms and democracy, issues that are close to her heart, was not reflected in her policies on China and Russia. This reflected a pragmatic mindset that refused to see the world in the divisive formulation of “with us or against us”.
The rise of Angela Merkel and her near-complete sway over the German political landscape despite presiding over coalition governments for 16 years is a lesson in how a deep sense of duty, courage, pragmatism, and empathy can go a long way in breaking stereotypes.
According to her biographer, Bollmann, Merkel would like to be remembered “as the woman who has led Germany through many crises … relatively safely.”
Together with Jacinda Ardern, Merkel has established that women happen to be more empathetic and effective leaders than men, especially during times of crisis. Her leadership and phenomenal political story will continue to inspire girls not just in Germany but also around the world to break the stereotypes and venture into areas not considered female enough.
The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex. He writes regularly for opinion-pages of The News.
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