People initially underestimated the German chancellor — but she has led four governments and mastered a series of crises in 16 years in office. She has worked with four US presidents, five British prime ministers and four presidents of France, not to mention the multitude of chancellors of Austria or prime ministers of Italy. In many capitals, leaders came and went — but Angela Merkel stayed.
And so it is understandable that many people, especially abroad, can no longer imagine Germany and Europe without Angela Merkel and wonder whether the economically strong nation at the heart of the continent will remain stable and predictable even without this chancellor.
Not muscle, but backbone
She was unpretentious, unruffled and pragmatic when handling difficult partners. Even when provoked, she always dealt calmly with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Often enough, her political principles were evident only when reading between the lines, a fact that was often recognized more clearly abroad than in Germany.
The German chancellor made her way in a male-dominated world. She didn’t flex her muscles, but relied on her backbone. “Above all, it takes truthfulness to others and — perhaps most importantly — to ourselves,” she said in a Harvard commencement address in 2019. That includes, Merkel said, “not calling lies truths and truths lies.”
She is much less at ease with loud messages than with subtle gestures. When Vladimir Putin’s large black Labrador approached her during a visit to his summer residence in Sochi, she stayed calm despite her great fear of dogs. Fourteen years later, during her last visit to the Kremlin, she let her cell phone ring at maximum volume in the middle of a joint press conference with Putin. Twice!
A new political style
Merkel was liked and respected for her style almost more in other countries than in Germany, even though, of course, she is and was not always just popular abroad. She had to make a series of unpleasant decisions. To this day, the Greeks deplore her steeliness in the financial crisis, the Italians are at odds with the fact she turned a blind eye to the migration crisis that had been brewing since well before 2015, and people in Poland oppose her approval of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. However, her controversial decisions do little to lessen the respect that Merkel enjoys internationally.
That is because Angela Merkel embodies a political style that you would be hard-pressed to find with other politicians: She governed scandal-free for 16 years. By choosing when to leave office, she has set a benchmark for how the voluntary transfer of power can be carried out with dignity and respect.
A long apprenticeship
So it’s no surprise that many people abroad are wondering what kind of Germany the world can expect when Merkel leaves. Incidentally, many Germans are also asking that very same question. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). long accused Merkel of not having thought about who might succeed her.
But if party politics are put aside aside, it is not at all certain whether that is even true. Her successor, the Social Democratic (SPD) politician Olaf Scholz, most recently served as Merkel’s vice chancellor for four years. He, too, values stability and continuity as the most important guidelines of German politics.
So the international community need not tax its brains: The new chancellor has spent plenty of time learning from Merkel.
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