Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Angela Merkel’s inclusive and firm leadership shall be missed

Mutti, Germans call her, an endearing term for “mother", with all the warmth, kindness and inclination to occasionally use the metaphorical stick. When she speaks, the world listens.

Angela Merkel, the first woman to become the chancellor of Germany in 2005, will not seek re-election in 2021. In a week when the world is looking at history to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, her name figures right up there along with the world’s greats. Without pomp, and even less pageantry, whether at glitzy events like the annual World Economic Forum at Davos or the closed conclaves of the Group of Seven, and even in smaller settings like bilateral meetings with some of the world’s most powerful leaders—she was recently in India—Merkel has never let herself become the story.

Her priority has been Germany and Europe, and building a strong European foreign policy. In a world that is badly in need of healing and mending, even her worst critics cannot find any fault with her, other than to say that she’s too inclusive.

Born in Hamburg, West Germany, Merkel moved to East Germany as a child with her family. She has a doctorate in quantum chemistry and worked as a research scientist, entering politics only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She was elected to the German Bundestag and rose in politics as the protégé of chancellor Helmut Kohl. Merkel held several political positions till she was elected secretary general of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), before becoming its first female leader. In October 2018, Merkel said she would not seek re-election as the CDU’s, nor as Germany’s chancellor the year after next.

One area where Merkel’s voice is already being missed is the current tensions in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), the post-war grouping of the Allies. French President Emmanuel Macron recently said there’s a brain drain within, and that Nato’s head—Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg—is a lightweight. Relations between Europe and the US have never been as acrimonious as they are now, and US President Donald Trump appears to be fishing in troubled waters from across the pond.

Merkel exemplifies a range of leadership qualities, from rigorous resilience and fair-play to humanity and hard work, all rolled in one. These are qualities that European Union (EU) leaders can take lessons from—especially at a time when Europe is in search of an identity that would enable it to preserve its differences and diversity without having to sacrifice much-needed economic growth.

Germans are Europe’s most productive people (they work the least number of hours, much to the envy of the French), and, at a little over 80 million, they carry the industrial gravitas of China, which is over a billion strong. Merkel was the first to lead a trade delegation to China, followed by France.

The German work ethic, of which Merkel is a complete reflection, is not a fairy tale. It is a reality that comes from self respect and respect for one’s country. It’s a sentiment that is nurtured by the country’s education system and instilled in its workforce, be it in dealing with its current economic issues—infrastructure, for example—or pulling back from a heavy dependence on coal.

Merkel has just announced an ambitious environmental programme. A Lutheran who has studied Marxism and Leninism, she is no evangelist of any “ism" other than pragmatism and humanism. Her kind of rigorous compassion is a combination of skill and experience that few leaders have. Among the Europeans who have displayed such capacity was probably the French visionary Jacques Delors, who knit socialist policies with market forces to draw the grand lines of the European common market as it began to take shape.

Two recent instances where Merkel bit the bullet show her vision and quest for a democratic middle ground. One was when she hit the ground running and saved the EU from doddering after the Greek financial crisis a decade ago. The other was her decision to take over a million Syrians fleeing war and poverty some years ago. “We can do this," she told her nation. The salient message to the world, especially to those across the pond, was this: You cannot ceaselessly bomb a people and expect them not to run to safety. Dislocation has never been a natural choice for human beings, and it has not got any better in a world where people want more and more, and where there’s less and less of everything, except instruments of war and nervous leaders.

“History will prove her right," the European Commission’s president Jean-Claude Junker had told Germany’s mass circulation daily, Bild, and that “…if she had closed the German borders, Austria and Hungary would have collapsed due to the high number of refugees."

When Merkel said, “we can do this", apropos Syrian refugees, she wasn’t looking for applause. European prosperity is the direct result of the absence of war and a difficult relationship with Russia (with which west European countries share borders) that few non-Europeans comprehend.

Perhaps the one time she gave any emotion away without words was during a photo-op, when Trump invited her to stand next to him in the first row while she preferred to stay in the second rung. Cameras caught her gently rolling her eyes after the US president had turned his back. Non-committal, yet determined in her own way—that’s Angela Merkel.

Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning journalist and author.

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