The Irish Times
Chancellor of Europe
It’s not long since this paper, along with many other commentators on the European/Greek financial crisis, was lamenting German prevarication, the tendency to delay taking decisions and then to do only the minimum at the last possible minute. We were talking, of course, specifically of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Germans even have a word for it, “Merkeling”. Our Berlin correspondent Derek Scally wrote bemoaning “her patented ‘small steps’ approach to politics, which combines old East German caution with poll-driven pragmatism. The chancellor has always waited to see how the cards would fall before making her bet”. That was then.
At this time of year every year, an old very successful marketing/advertising ritual plays out.
Time magazine, though much diminished in status these days, announces its cover “man/woman of the year”. This year Merkel makes the grade. It is not as if she has been awarded the Nobel Prize. But the new Merkel, described by Time as “the most powerful woman in the world” and the “de facto leader of the European Union” does indeed deserve acknowledgment and reappraisal after a year in which she played such a central role in the two existential crises, Greece and the migrants, that rocked the EU.
In the latter context, Merkel’s shock decision in the late summer, 10 years after she assumed the chancellorship, to throw open Germany’s doors to a pressing throng of refugees was all the more astonishing for its apparent break with her cautious past. She spoke of the issue as “the greatest challenge since unification” and, when pressed on how she would master it, said simply that “it is damn well my obligation to do so”.
In part it was an expression of her strong commitment to Europe and the solidarity on which she believes it is based – of the Greek crisis she had warned that “if the euro fails, Europe fails”. She was not going to allow that.
But the open door policy also reflected a remarkable political feel for the yet-unmanifested popular mood, the outpouring of generosity and welcome to the fleeing refugees that was deeply moving, and, to the astonishment of the political class even here, would be replicated across the continent. The tide may have turned, but Merkel’s brave, moral stand set a benchmark for the EU that almost all have failed to live up to.
Her legacy, stateswoman apart, will be also as a remarkably popular politician – 60 per cent approval ratings – and to leave Germany, though not yet, both better off economically and more at ease with itself. German identity, so long tied up with Vergangenheitsbewältigung, roughly translated by one writer as “wrestling the past into submission”, has evolved to the point where, as Scally puts it, “Germans are enjoying a new freedom to be the people they’d like to be”. Merkel has played a quiet, but no small, part in it.