It’s the evening of November 16, 2016, and Barack Obama and Angela Merkel have just sat down for a private dinner inside Berlin’s chic Adlon Hotel – the place where Michael Jackson once hung his nine-month-old son. on a fourth floor balcony.
Donald Trump had won the White House a fortnight earlier and Obama had flown to the German capital to bid him farewell and ask him a favor: to guard against impending turbulence, would Merkel delay her planned retirement in 2017 and run for office? she a fourth term as chancellor? Merkel was already thinking about it and announced her intention to get re-elected a few days later.
Five years after that fateful dinner, Merkel is finally heading out, retiring from politics following Sunday’s national elections. Its departure represents a displacement of the tectonic plates under Germany, Europe and the international political landscape.
During her 16 years in power, she has earned many nicknames: the most powerful woman in the world, the chancellor of the free world, the queen of Europe, the Merkelator and the “last defender” of the West. liberal. In Germany, she is affectionately known as Mutti – short for mom.
She has also been a feminist icon – although she is reluctant. Having repeatedly avoided the subject, Merkel, 67, declared herself a feminist for the first time only last week.
âI think she is a trailblazer – a true icon for women around the world,â said Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. âI cannot count the number of times I have seen a photo in international media of Chancellor Merkel at an event where she is the only woman in the picture. It is striking and it has an impact.
âShe was also a remarkable leader of Germany. Few leaders in the modern age are in office for this long and can therefore make the contribution that it has.
Obama was one of four US presidents with whom Merkel dealt. Seven Australian prime ministers also came and left, along with five British prime ministers and four French presidents.
She presided over a huge expansion of the German economy, brought her conservative Christian Democratic Union party to the political center and helped keep the European Union together during Brexit, the area’s debt crisis. euro and the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
“She was also seen as the leader of the free world when the American took mental leave under Trump,” says Matthew Qvortrup, her biographer. One of the defining photographs of the Merkel era is that of the Chancellor leaning over a table, gazing at a petulant-looking Trump while other world leaders look on.
“She also helped keep the Paris Agreement on climate change alive, she maintained a commitment to multilateralism and she kept the pressure on Vladimir Putin,” Qvortrup said. “It’s not in itself a glamorous job, but it all adds up to a legacy.”
There is also a lot to admire on his own personal journey. Raised in communist East Germany, the fiercely intelligent Merkel studied physics and chemistry and worked as a researcher before entering politics. The first female Chancellor of Germany, Merkel has remained anchored: she lives in a modest Berlin apartment with her husband, professor of theoretical chemistry, Joachim Sauer, and was sometimes pictured shopping.
But there are also stains on his file. His surprise decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany following the Fukushima disaster was seen as hasty and unnecessary, and his climate change credentials leave a lot to be desired. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring gas directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and other countries, is deeply unpopular with allies, including the United States.
His insistence on allowing 1 million Syrian refugees to enter Germany opened the door for far-right forces and sparked widespread internal anger. While much of that has diminished thanks to a successful integration program, the decision remains contested.
Merkel has also been criticized for not doing enough to distance herself from the economic interests of Germany from China, Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban and an increasingly undemocratic Poland.
Matthias Matthijs, associate professor of international political economy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says Merkel’s accolades are often unwarranted.
“She has a huge moral reputation in Europe,” says Matthijs. “If she can be tough on Russia with sanctions after Ukraine and Crimea, I don’t see why she couldn’t have done more to deal with Hungary and Poland.”
Matthijs believes personal economic interest has driven much of Merkel’s decision-making, which he and other critics say has been marked by procrastination and procrastination.
Often, he says, Merkel has done the minimum necessary to keep things from falling apart. For her part, Merkel has previously said that “many small steps” can achieve big goals.
“I’m not giving him an ‘F’,” says Matthijs. âI don’t give him an ‘A’ either. If I was a German bourgeois industrialist I would give it an A-minus or an A, and if I was a Greenpeace activist or an NGO worker I would probably give it much worse marks.
âAnyone who can achieve four electoral victories and fundamentally outsmart all of their opponents within and outside their party in German politics is impressive. But what she gets credit for, I think, is sometimes not deserved.
Constanze StelzenmÃ¼ller, Brooking’s Institute’s Fritz Stern Chair in U.S. and European Foreign Policy, agrees Merkel’s legacy is inconclusive.
âMerkel cares a lot about politics, relationships and institutions,â says StelzenmÃ¼ller. âBut she is that rare thing: a politician who is neither needy nor conceited. If she cares about her heritage, she cares about the outcome, not what it means for her image. “
Stelzenmueller thinks there is still a lot to admire. When Merkel once asked a one-star general what it was like to work for the scientist-turned-chancellor, the man replied, âIt’s like working next to a nuclear power plant. He just runs, runs and runs.
While experts can debate the good and the bad, German voters seem to have made up their minds. Unlike most leaders, Merkel is arguably emerging at the peak of her popularity and would almost certainly have won a fifth term under the Christian Democratic Union if she had participated in next Sunday’s poll.
The race to succeed Merkel comes down to three candidates: Armin Laschet of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens.
Laschet has been a terrible militant and lacks Merkel’s magnetism, allowing Scholz to soar and putting him in the best position to lead a coalition government after Sunday.
If negotiations over the composition of government continue into December, Merkel would overtake her mentor Helmut Kohl for the title of longest-serving chancellor in post-war Germany.
What will Europe look like without it? In the short term, French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as the continent’s new ruler, but Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi – former President of the European Central Bank – and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will also exert new influence.
A recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank indicates that ‘Merkelism’ is unlikely to survive Merkel’s departure, as the policy of remaining neutral and avoiding difficult solutions to Europe’s difficulties does not not seem like a viable approach for the challenges ahead.
âThe downside of wanting to involve everyone and making EU cohesion a top priority is that it limits the ability to act,â wrote two ECFR experts recently, Pitor Buras and Jana Puglierin.
âMany of the most pressing challenges facing Europe are impossible to meet with the Merkel method. Dealing with the pandemic, climate change and increasing geopolitical competition requires not only cosmetic changes, but also political support for more radical solutions.
“Merkelism is unlikely to survive Merkel, not because only she can practice it, but because the EU will need a more visionary and courageous Germany to strengthen its foundations and defend its place in the world.
Soon none of this will be Merkel’s problem. When asked in July what she could do next, Merkel replied that it would someday occur to her that someone else was in charge.
“And that will probably do some good,” she smiles. “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will close because I’m tired, and I’ll take a little nap.”
“And then let’s see where this takes me.”
Get a rating directly from our stranger Correspondents on what makes the headlines in the world. Sign up for the weekly What in the World newsletter here.