With her election as Germany’s first female chancellor on November 22, 2005, Angela Merkel ensured that she would be remembered as a historical figure.
Her achievements over the next 16 years include raising Germany’s profile and influence, working to keep a fractious European Union together, managing a string of crises, and serving as a role model for women.
Now, at the age of 67, she is stepping down from the presidency, where she has received international acclaim as well as widespread public support in her home country. Olaf Scholz, her designated successor, is expected to take over the reins of the organization on Wednesday.
Merkel, a former scientist who grew up in communist East Germany, is stepping down just over a week short of the record for the longest tenure held by her former mentor, Helmut Kohl, who was in office from 1982 to 1998 and was instrumental in bringing Germany back together.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is flanked by other world leaders as they walk together to pose for a photograph in Heiligendamm, Germany, June 7, 2007. President George W. Bush of the United States, Italian Premier Romano Prodi, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, British Premier Tony Blair, and Canadian Premier Stephen Harper are among the leaders who will be in attendance.
Despite the fact that Merkel does not have a particularly notable signature achievement, the center-right Christian Democrat has established herself as an indispensable crisis manager and defender of Western values in turbulent times.
She served alongside four presidents of the United States, four presidents of France, five prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and eight premiers of Italy. She faced four major challenges during her tenure as chancellor, including the global financial crisis, Europe’s debt crisis, the 2015-16 influx of refugees into Europe, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
There is no denying that she has provided Germany with a significant amount of soft power, according to Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Berlin office. “Without a doubt, she has improved Germany’s image around the world.”
“When she first came onto the scene in 2005, a lot of people underestimated her, but she has grown in stature in tandem with Germany’s increasing importance in the world,” David-Wilp continued. In addition to Germany, other countries in Europe and beyond “desire for Germany to play a more active role in the world — something that may not have been the case prior to her taking office.”
“Thanks to your efforts, the center has remained stable through numerous storms,” he said.
Merkel was a driving force behind EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and she also spearheaded efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution in the region that have so far fallen short of success. According to David-Wilp, she was regarded as being “capable of engaging in dialogue with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin on behalf of the Western world.”
During a ceremony in Compiegne, north of Paris, on Nov. 10, 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A military parade held in her honor last week demonstrated her unwavering commitment to pursuing multilateral solutions to the world’s problems, a principle she outlined in her acceptance speech.
The global financial crisis and the migrant influx “made clear how much we rely on cooperation beyond national borders and how essential international institutions and multilateral instruments are to be able to cope with the big challenges of our time,” Merkel said, naming climate change, digitization, and migration as three of the world’s most pressing issues.
That stance served as a powerful counterpoint to the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, with whom she had a tense relationship. When photographers yelled for them to shake hands during their first meeting in the White House in March 2017, she quietly asked Trump, “Do you want to have a handshake?” However, there was no response from the president, who was looking ahead at the time.
Merkel brushed off being referred to as the “leader of the free world” during that time period, stating that leadership is never delegated to a single person or country alone.
Nonetheless, she was regarded as a crucial leader in the unwieldy 27-nation EU, and was renowned for her endurance in coaxing agreements out of unwilling parties during marathon negotiating sessions.
“Ms. Merkel was a machine for finding common ground,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel recently said. When negotiations became stalled, she “most of the time found something that unites us in order to move things forward.”
On display in July 2020, when EU leaders reached an unprecedented agreement on a budget and coronavirus recovery fund totaling 1.8 billion euros ($2 billion) after a contentious four-day summit.
“You are a monument,” said European Council President Charles Michel to Merkel during her 107th and final EU summit. He went on to say that a summit without her would be comparable to “Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”
The admiration she received from her colleagues was genuine, despite the fact that there was a lot of disagreement over the years. Merkel has always sought to keep the EU as tightly knit as possible, but she has also fiercely defended Germany’s interests, clashing with Greece during the debt crisis and clashing with Hungary, Poland, and others over their refusal — unlike Germany — to accept migrants arriving in Europe. Merkel was elected German chancellor in 2005.
Merkel stated that she was withdrawing from the EU “in the context of a situation that definitely gives me cause for concern.”
“I believe we have been successful in overcoming many crises in a spirit of mutual respect and in an ongoing effort to find common solutions,” she said. There are also a number of unresolved issues, as well as significant unfinished business for my successor.
Also true at home, where she has an unimpressive track record that is dominated by the crises she has dealt with, including a pandemic that is re-igniting as she prepares to step down from the White House. In addition to lower unemployment and stronger finances, she will leave Germany with well-documented shortcomings in digitization — many health offices relied on fax machines to transmit data during the pandemic — and what critics claim was a lack of investment in infrastructure.
Angela Merkel, German Chancellor and leader of the Christian Democrats, speaks to members of Israel’s Knesset during a special session in Jerusalem on March 18, 2008, and receives a standing ovation.
She made significant strides in the promotion of renewable energy, but she also came under fire for moving too slowly on climate change. In 2018, she announced that she would not seek re-election to a fifth term. However, she was unable to ensure a smooth transition of power within her own party, which went on to lose the national election in September.
After years of stagnation, the incoming governing coalition under Scholz says it wants to “venture more progress” for Germany in the coming years.
However, the overall impression among Germans appears to be positive. Merkel’s popularity ratings far outstripped those of her three potential successors during the election campaign, which she was largely absent from. In contrast to her predecessors in postwar Germany, she is stepping down at a time that she has chosen for herself.
Merkel’s body language and facial expressions occasionally provided a glimpse into her thoughts and feelings that were beyond words. She once expressed frustration with her inability to maintain a poker face, saying, “I’ve given up.” “I’m not going to be able to do it.”
Putin’s demeanor didn’t bother her in the least. The Russian president once brought his Labrador to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2007, after which Merkel expressed “certain concern” about dogs after being bitten by one herself.
But she was never known for being a flashy politician, and that was part of her appeal – the chancellor continued to go on unglamorous walking holidays, was occasionally seen at the supermarket, and lived in the same Berlin apartment she had prior to being appointed chancellor.
Merkel, who has been named “The World’s Most Powerful Woman” by Forbes magazine for the past ten years in a row, will leave behind a legacy of breaking through the glass ceiling of male dominance in politics — though she has been criticized for not pushing harder for greater gender equality.
President Barack Obama stated that “so many people, girls and boys, men and women, have had a role model who they could look up to during difficult times.”
Earlier this year, former President George W. Bush said that Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, had soured over the latter’s opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and that “Angela came in and changed that completely.”
“Angela Merkel brought class and dignity to a very important position and made very difficult decisions… and did so on the basis of principle,” Bush said in a July interview with German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle. ‘A compassionate leader,’ he said of her, “a woman who was not afraid to take the initiative.”