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February 27, 2021

Merkel’s legacy


February 27, 2021

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex

The manner in which world leaders have handled the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent economic challenges has shone 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.

Commentary has often revolved around the proactive and empathetic leadership demonstrated by Jacinda Ardern, the popular prime minister of New Zealand as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel in leading the most effective national response against the deadly virus.

The example of these two distinguished female leaders serves as a foil to the shoddy work done by the likes of Donald Trump that increased the costs for their respective nations not just economically but also in terms of loss of precious lives. Chancellor Merkel, who is in the twilight of her eventful political career, started her public life as a minister for women and youth affairs in the cabinet of former chancellor Helmut Kohl. After he stepped down from the top executive office following a financial scandal, “Kohl’s girl”, as the press 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.

Chancellor Merkel’s decision to not run for public office, following the conclusion of her current term that expires later this year, has ignited a debate on her contribution and legacy as one of the longest-serving world leaders.

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 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 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.

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 nobody could dominate the political landscape of her country for 14 long years speaks to her immense qualities of head and heart.

Christine Lagarde, former IMF chief, summed up Merkel’s leadership in four 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 has 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 has shaped her diligent disposition. Bringing her A-game to dealing with problems, she has been 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 in the country, is a story of steely determination at work in pursuits of larger goals.

Over the course of almost 15 years, Angela Merkel has emerged as a powerful voice for a stronger, more interconnected and prosperous Europe. She has practically been leading Europe amid serious crises that could otherwise rip the Union apart. Her conciliatory leadership has been instrumental in crafting consensus on convergences without allowing divergences to rock the boat such as during the Euro crisis.

Chancellor Merkel has tied Germany’s prosperity to that of Europe. Her vision for the EU has been 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”.

Even with her track record of established public service at home, Angela Merkel has been criticised for her evasive approach towards Russia and China. Germany, under her chancellorship, has kept the lines of communication open with the Kremlin. Despite 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 has made sure that both Germany and Russia continue to work together on the construction of the mega Nord Stream 2 gas project.

The US, under President Trump in particular, and Europe have been critical of China over what they term as Beijing’s crackdown against the protesters in Hong Kong, the treatment of Uighur Muslims, and the increasing authoritarianism, etc. Chancellor Merkel has stood up to the American pressure, refusing to block the access of Chinese technology into Germany.

On trade issues with China, she has 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.

Critics point out that the Chancellor’s concern for human rights, freedoms, and democracy, issues that are close to her heart, is not reflected in her China and Russia policy. This reflects a pragmatic mindset that refuses 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 14 years is a lesson in how a deep sense of duty, courage, pragmatism, and empathy can go a long way in breaking stereotypes. Very few world leaders end their political careers with such high approval ratings as Merkel is doing.

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 crises.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222