Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, isn’t flashy and doesn't use Twitter. But since she became Germany's chancellor in 2005, every event that has shaken the European Union has made her ever more its indispensable leader. The continent ended up marching to Merkel’s cautious mantra of solving problems “step by step,’’ whether in the austerity imposed after the continent’s debt crisis or the sanctions that followed Russia’s invasion of Crimea. She’s now the only major world leader who’s been in power since before 2008. But her prescription for “more Europe’’ is facing challenges on many fronts, including Britain's vote to leave the EU and the rise of populist parties in France, Italy and elsewhere. Even at home her popularity has fallen, undermined by her uncharacteristically bold welcome of Syrian refugees. Now the U.S. has elected Donald Trump as its next president — an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has suggested that NATO is obsolete.
Merkel announced in November that she will seek a fourth term by running in next year’s federal election. She quickly moved to shore up support from conservative members of her Christian Democratic Union by calling for a ban on full-face veils and pledging to protect Germany against future refugee waves. In September, Merkel had offered a rare mea culpa over her handling of immigrants after a state election defeat. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party has capitalized on the discontent. The country admitted almost 1 million asylum seekers in 2015. A string of violent incidents in the summer of 2016, some involving refugees, unsettled many. Then a truck attack that killed 12 shoppers at a Berlin Christmas market was linked to a Tunisian asylum seeker awaiting deportation, seeming to increase pressure on Merkel to shift to her right. In her favor are the country’s strong economy — unemployment is under 4.5 percent — and a budget surplus that’s widely popular.
Merkel was born in 1954 in Hamburg, but her family moved to communist East Germany when she was an infant. She wasn’t a dissident and says she rebuffed recruiters from the Stasi, the secret police. On the night the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Merkel had continued with her routine of a weekly sauna, only later joining a crowd pushing its way over a bridge to West Berlin. Merkel had been working as a laboratory physicist but was swept up in the euphoria of democracy and at age 35 ended up aligned with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union, puzzling friends who considered her apolitical. She advanced when Kohl saw a need for an East German woman in his first post-unity Cabinet. In 1999, she broke with her mentor when he was rocked by a finance scandal, and was elected party chairwoman. Her chance came when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called early elections in response to unpopular economic and labor reforms. Merkel squeaked through to become Germany’s leader in November 2005. She has been reelected twice: Her 2013 victory was the biggest for any party since reunification in 1990.
There’s been a common thread in actions by Merkel as disparate as browbeating Greece into accepting tough conditions for aid or opening her country to asylum seekers in need: That Germany set an example of holding behavior to high standards. Critics, however, say that her actions on the economy and immigration have helped fuel the rise of those who want to pull back from integration, by prolonging Europe’s economic malaise and feeding fears of terrorism. On the refugee issue, Merkel, long regarded by her supporters as well as critics as ruled by her head rather than her heart, spoke out in unusually forceful terms in 2015. “I’ve rarely held such an innermost conviction that this is a task that will decide whether Europe is accepted as a continent of values,” she said. But her declaration as she began her campaign that “full-face covering is not appropriate with us,” raised questions about whether she’s bowing to anti-immigrant sentiment or trying to find a cautious balance to allow Germany to continue to be a tolerant, diverse country open to the world.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg journalists Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka explore Merkel’s rise and values in the 2013 biography “Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis.”
- In December 2015, Time magazine named Merkel its Person of the Year.
- A German government website’s slideshow of Merkel since childhood.
- A commentary by former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer on Merkel’s handling of the Ukraine and Greece situations, and criticism of her economic policies by Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate and New York Times economics columnist.
- A profile in the New Yorker magazine.
First published March 5, 2015
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