German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that she will step down as party leader and will not run for re-election when her mandate finishes in 2021.
Her decision follows a turbulent local election season, particularly in the regions (or “Länder”) of Bavaria and Hesse, where poor results have cast doubt upon her authority.
Jittery though Merkel’s current predicament and future as a leader may seem, they are the embers of a long, distinguished and highly improbable career path. Her nomination as first female leader of a political party in Germany, and its first Chancellor to have grown up in the East under communism, as well as the more subjective, slightly fanciful accolades of “leader of the Free World” and “Queen of Europe” thrust upon her, are superficial glimpses of a lifetime of dedication, perseverance and stereotypically German efficiency. The well-known nickname “Mutti”, meaning Mummy, although condescending, indicates her enduring presence at the head of the nation.
Merkel was born in Hamburg in 1954. While many Germans were beginning to flee the communist regime firmly implanted in the Eastern “Länder”, driven by the hope of a better, freer life in the democratic, capitalist West, Angela crossed the border in the opposite direction as a tiny infant when her father was given a job as pastor north east of Berlin. Few traces of her childhood in rural East Germany remain in her accent, but her background became an early double springboard to her political career; driven into politics by a desire to see a rapid reunification of Germany, she was also handpicked into the incumbent Helmut Kohl’s conservative party in part thanks to her knowledge of the East.
Politics was not her first calling, however. Having studied physics in Leipzig, she went on to earn a doctorate in quantum chemistry at a renowned institution in Berlin, where she also worked in academic research and published several papers. The fall of the Berlin Wall, representing the disintegration of the repressive communist regime, might have happened while Angela relaxed almost obliviously in a sauna down the road, but it was to become a turning point in her life and career.
In Kohl’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union), Merkel served as Minister for Women and Youth and later Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety, and then as Secretary General when the party lapsed into the opposition. Merkel was unhesitating in her public criticism of Kohl’s involvement in a party funding scandal which emerged later on, resulting in her eventual nomination as party leader. In this capacity, she became Chancellor of Germany for the first time in 2005.
Since then, and throughout her four terms in power, she has guided her country and continent through a vast array of challenges, and through ups and downs for them both. Her strict attitude to fiscal discipline during the crisis of the Eurozone led to accusations of a lack of flexibility and then to criticism for the harshness of the conditions eventually imposed on Greece. Although her extended attempts to respect the “no bailout” rule of the Maastricht Treaty prolonged and perhaps aggravated the crisis, the final agreement would not have been possible without her eventual concession.
A further major international challenge will shape Merkel’s legacy; the refugee crisis. At a time when other nations squabbled over hundreds, Merkel opened Germany’s doors to a million. Despite knowing that there would be perhaps dire political consequences for her and her party, she was prepared to take bold and unilateral action when a truly European solution failed to emerge.
With the UK, the US, Italy and Brazil falling under the influence of louder, more theatrical, populist personalities, Merkel’s composure is a refreshing island of unruffled effectiveness. After 13 years to date in the role, her importance for Germany, the European Union and indeed the world can hardly be overestimated. Her dignity and calm as a figurehead, as well as the stability her rule has come to symbolise, will be missed at a time where the world has never needed it more.