Why Merkel stood out among world leaders
Most world leaders see self-promotion as vital to their survival. The G20 and the climate summit have been swansongs of a deliberately low-key leader, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, who is retiring after 16 years in office. Bidding her farewell, Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said, “You could say she has been a haven of calm within the European Union.” Britain’s Boris Johnson called her “a Titan of democracy”.
During Merkel’s years in office, Europe has lived through crisis after crisis — the Greek debt turmoil, the influx of refugees, Brexit, and it’s widely accepted that Merkel has steered the diverse community through them. Within Germany, she is credited with restoring calm after the turbulence created by earlier cuts in social benefits. The world is facing diverse dangers — America being at loggerheads with China and Russia, the climate crisis, Covid-19, the triumph of the Taliban, and rampant nationalism spreading discord between nations when the crying need is for harmony. Merkel herself once said, “I am afraid that open societies in the post-Cold War world are more in danger than we realise.”
What are the influences that have made Merkel a haven of calm in all this turmoil?
The daughter of a Protestant pastor, Merkel is an avowed Christian herself. She is the leader of the Christian Democratic Union but she does not bring her religion into politics. She is not publicly pious nor is she sectarian. But Merkel has spoken of the influence of Christianity on her. “I find it very liberating that, as a Christian, one knows that we are called on to shape the world in responsibility for others.” She also invoked Christianity to justify her controversial and politically damaging decision to offer refuge to a million or so asylum-seekers in the 2015 refugee crisis.
Merkel denies that she has any talent for self-promotion. She once told the then British prime minister Tony Blair she had no charisma and was not good at communicating. Her lifestyle is not glamorous. She lives with her husband in a modest flat in Central Berlin. She is a sensible dresser with a short, businesslike hair-cut.
Sensationalism plays no part in Merkel’s style of governance. She is a tactician rather than a grand strategist, prepared to wait for policies to emerge rather than rushing decisions. Although she believes in our power to shape the world, as an avid reader of history, she recognises that there are historical forces at work limiting that power.
In spite of her policy of seeking compromise in the best sense of the word, Merkel would not have survived for so long if she had not been able to be tough. There is a telling photograph of her and Donald Trump disagreeing at a G7 summit in 2018. A determined Merkel, surrounded by shocked world leaders, stands over Trump, who sits arms crossed, chin up, looking like a bolshie schoolboy refusing to accept a reprimand from a teacher.
The decision to open Germany’s borders to asylum-seekers was not the only tough decision Merkel took. But her critics say her preference for tactics rather than grand strategy has meant that important decisions have not been taken — for instance, investment in Germany’s roads, railways and telecommunications has been inadequate. She is also accused of being too accommodative of Viktor Orban of Hungary, whose concept of democracy does not measure up to the standards demanded by membership of the European Union. But, last month, a YouGov poll gave Angela Merkel the highest ratings of any world leader, indicating that there are other ways for politicians to acquire charisma than self-promotion.
The views expressed are personal