Angela Merkel talks to then US president Donald Trump, surrounded by other G7 leaders, during a summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, on June 9, 2018. The photo went viral on social media, spawning a plethora of memes. Photo: AFP/Bundesregierung
Andrew Sheng
Andrew Sheng

Angela Merkel: in praise of Germany’s no-nonsense leader

  • Germany’s first woman chancellor is expected to step down this year after 16 years at the helm. She will be remembered for projecting humility, balance, stability and simple common sense at a time when the West seemed adrift

We criticise more than praise. Good news is no news. Fiery or flowery rhetoric cannot disguise the fact that most politicians have not delivered what they promised. Hence, we should praise those leaders who look dull but have performed spectacularly. 

Angela Merkel is due to step down soon as chancellor of Germany after 16 years at the helm. If she leaves office at the end of this year, she will have served in that position longer than her mentor, Helmut Kohl, who served from 1982 to 1998.

Kohl seized the historical opportunity to reunite Germany; Merkel would be remembered as the centrist, no-nonsense builder on that foundation. Lesser leaders would have fumbled or wasted the opportunity. 

This is no mean feat for the only woman leader in the G7. Other than Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been de facto leader since 1999, no one has dealt with more crises. Nevertheless, under Merkel’s stewardship, Germany has consolidated its position as the fourth-largest economy in the world.

Merkel is also the most intellectually qualified of her peers, having obtained a doctorate in quantum chemistry, but she is neither proud nor flashy. When asked why she often wore the same suit, she retorted, “I am a government employee and not a model.”

Angela Merkel with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall on June 12. Photo: No10 Downing Street/dpa

Born in West Germany but raised in East Germany, she was the country’s first woman chancellor, the first chancellor born after World War II and the first from East Germany.

Her predecessor, Gerhard Schroder led the Social Democrat-Green Party coalition that refused to sign off on the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

That period experienced very tough economic restructuring in the face of high labour costs and severe manufacturing competition from Japan and the Asian global supply chain. By the end of the Schroder period, the country needed healing, which Merkel provided. 

Her first major crisis was the 2008 global financial crisis, which hit Germany badly in terms of exports, but also through the huge damage to the European banking system because of excessive investments in US financial derivatives as well as non-performing loans.

The 2008-09 European debt crisis split the European Union into weak debtors and strong creditors. Unlike the 1997-98 Asian crisis economies, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain could not devalue their way out, although euro weakening and exports to China helped. The austerity drive demanded by the European surplus economies alienated many southern debtors.
Thousands of protesters march through the streets of Paris against austerity plans on September 30, 2012. The close partnership that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel developed in managing the euro-zone debt crisis earned them the collective nickname “Merkozy”. The placard reads: “No to the Merkozy treaty”. Photo: Reuters
Merkel had to balance domestic right-wing conservatives, who demanded austerity, with the reality that European unity remained fundamental to German peace and stability. The euro and EU survived the crisis, but the internal fractures became more open, with Brexit and right-wing populism as major consequences.
The second crisis Merkel survived was the 2015 influx of refugees. That year, the number of migrant arrivals into Europe was over one million; Germany alone received nearly half a million asylum applicants, and 750,000 in 2016. 

While the rising number of migrants spooked many in Europe, Merkel famously said, “We can do this”. Unfortunately, that courageous statement did not sit well with some of Merkel’s supporters, and her party lost many seats in the next election.

Life after Merkel: Germany’s ties with China head into the unknown

It was Merkel’s foreign policy that impressed Asians more. The key tenets were a firm European and North Atlantic alliance, belief in multilateralism and trade, and a conviction that global solutions are resolved best through negotiation rather than military intervention. Over time, this reflected a more independent line from that of the United States.

In 2013, Der Spiegel made the startling claim that the US had been bugging Merkel’s phone since 2002, sparking outrage in Germany. But it was Donald Trump’s election as US president in 2016 that triggered a review of US-European relations.

In May 2017, after contentious G7 and Nato meetings, Merkel stated pointedly that Europe could no longer rely on the US and Britain and it was time “to take our fate in our own hands”. 


Angela Merkel raises Hong Kong issues with Premier Li Keqiang

Angela Merkel raises Hong Kong issues with Premier Li Keqiang

Merkel’s philosophy is best summed up by her brilliant 2019 Harvard commencement speech. Her lessons were: “Take joint action in the interest of the moderate lateral global world. Keep asking yourselves, ‘Am I doing something because it is right, or simply because it’s possible?’

“Don’t forget that freedom is never something that can be taken for granted. Surprise yourself with what is possible. Remember that openness always involves risks. Letting go of the old is part of the new beginning.

“Above all, nothing can be taken for granted. Everything is possible.”

Merkel has been able to understand the new era of “quantum politics”, where, given massive uncertainty, politicians have to recognise that everything is possible and nothing can be taken for granted. 

But Merkel had the moral conviction that peace is best achieved by working together, and the common sense “not to describe lies as truth and truth as lies”.

At a time when the West seemed adrift, the rest admires Germany and Europe precisely because Merkel projected the virtues of humility, balance, stability and simple common sense. Asia, especially, will need these qualities to survive the coming turmoil. 

Andrew Sheng comments on global affairs from an Asian perspective. The views expressed here are his own