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End of an era: Germany's Angela Merkel steps down after 16 years

Merkel, "The World's Most Powerful Woman" by Forbes for the previous ten years, leaves legacy of cracking the glass ceiling of male domination in politics

End of an era: Germanys Angela Merkel steps down after 16 years
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When Angela Merkel became Germany's first female chancellor on November 22, 2005, she ensured her place in history.

She was recognised with expanding Germany's prominence and power during the next 16 years, as well as trying to keep a fractious European Union together, managing a string of crises, and serving as a role model for women.

Her near-record reign is coming to a conclusion, with her departing office at the age of 67 to international acclaim and enduring popularity at home. Olaf Scholz, her chosen successor, is set to enter office on Wednesday.

Merkel, a former scientist who grew up in communist East Germany, will leave office just a week short of her one-time mentor, Helmut Kohl, who reunited Germany during his 1982-1998 stint.

While Merkel's trademark achievement may be lacking, the center-right Christian Democrat has emerged as a vital crisis manager and champion of Western values in challenging times.

Four US presidents, four French presidents, five British prime ministers, and eight Italian premiers served alongside her. The global financial crisis, Europe's debt crisis, the 2015-16 inflow of refugees to Europe, and the coronavirus outbreak were all important problems during her tenure as chancellor.

"It's undeniable that she's given Germany a lot of soft power," said Sudha David-Wilp, the deputy director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States' Berlin office. "Undoubtedly she's elevated Germany's image in the world."

"When she first came onto the scene in 2005, a lot of people underestimated her, but she grew in stature along with Germany's role in the world," David-Wilp added. Others in Europe and beyond "want more of an active Germany to play a role in the world — that may not have been the case before she was in office, necessarily."

In a video message at Merkel's final EU summit in October, former U.S. President Barack Obama thanked her for "taking the high ground for so many years."

"Thanks to you, the center has held through many storms," he said.

Merkel was a driving force behind EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and also spearheaded so-far-unfinished efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution there. She was regarded as being "able to have a dialogue with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin on behalf of the West," David-Wilp said.

She was adamant about exploring multilateral solutions to the world's issues, as she stated at a military parade honouring her last week.

The global financial crisis and the migrant influx "made clear how much we rely on cooperation beyond national borders and how crucial international institutions and multilateral instruments are to be able to cope with the big challenges of our time," Merkel said, citing climate change, digitisation, and migration as examples.

That position stood in stark contrast to former US President Donald Trump, with whom she had a tense relationship. When photographers yelled for them to shake hands during their first encounter in the White House in March 2017, she gently asked Trump, "Do you want to have a handshake?" The president, though, who was looking forward, did not respond.

Merkel brushed off the title of "leader of the free world" during that time, claiming that leadership is never delegated to a single person or country.

Despite this, she was seen as a critical leader in the unwieldy 27-nation EU, renowned for her perseverance in negotiating agreements in long sessions.

"Ms. Merkel was a compromise machine," Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said recently. When negotiations were blocked, she "mostly found something that unites us to move things along."

After a contentious four-day conference, EU leaders struck a compromise on an unprecedented 1.8 trillion-euro ($2 trillion) budget and coronavirus recovery fund in July 2020.

At her 107th and last EU summit, European Council President Charles Michel told Merkel: "You are a monument." A summit without her would be like "Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel Tower," he added.

Her colleagues' gratitude was genuine, despite the fact that there had been plenty of squabbles over the years. Merkel fought to keep the EU as close as possible while also defending Germany's interests, arguing with Greece during the debt crisis and disputing with Hungary, Poland, and others over their refusal to accept migrants arriving in Europe, unlike Germany.

Merkel said she was bowing out of the EU "in a situation that definitely gives me cause for concern as well."

"We have been able to overcome many crises in a spirit of respect, in an effort always to find common solutions" she said. "But we also have a series of unresolved problems, and there are big unfinished tasks for my successor."

That's also true at home, where her record is a mixed bag, overshadowed by the crises she dealt with, including a pandemic that's flared up again as she steps down. She departs Germany with reduced unemployment and better finances, but also with well-documented digital flaws — many health offices used fax machines to transfer data during the pandemic — and what opponents say was a lack of infrastructure investment.

She made strides in encouraging renewable energy, but she was chastised for taking too long to address climate change. She failed to arrange a seamless transition of power in her own party after stating in 2018 that she would not seek a fifth term, and her party was defeated in Germany's September election.

After years of stasis, Scholz's upcoming government coalition says it wants to "venture more progress" for Germany.

However, the Germans' overall opinion appears to be positive. Merkel's popularity ratings outstripped those of her three potential successors throughout the election campaign, which she mainly avoided. She is leaving office at her leisure, unlike her seven predecessors in postwar Germany.

Merkel's body language and facial expressions sometimes spoke more than words about her feelings. She previously regretted her inability to maintain a poker face, saying, "I've given up. I can't do it."

Putin's demeanour did not intimidate her. After being bitten by a dog, the Russian president once brought his Labrador to a meeting with Merkel in 2007. Merkel later stated she had "certain concern" about dogs after being bitten by one.

The chancellor continued to take unglamorous walking holidays, was occasionally seen shopping at the grocery, and lived in the same Berlin apartment she did before attaining the top position, which was part of her appeal.

Merkel, who has been dubbed "The World's Most Powerful Woman" by Forbes magazine for the past ten years, leaves behind a record of breaking down the glass barrier of male domination in politics, while she has been chastised for not pressing more for greater gender equality.

Obama said that "so many people, girls and boys, men and women, have had a role model who they could look up to through challenging times."

Former President George W. Bush, who had a strained relationship with Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, over the latter's opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, claimed that "Angela came in and entirely transformed that."

"Angela Merkel brought class and dignity to a very important position and made very hard decisions … and did so based upon principle," Bush told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in July. He described her as "a compassionate leader, a woman who was not afraid to lead."

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