Angela Merkel is younger than me. There’s a sobering thought! And yet, when she became chancellor of Germany, I was still, so to speak, in mid-career.
She’s been there so long it’s hard to remember who was there before her. And heaven only knows what will happen after her. That will all start to unfold next month.
The German people go to the polls at the end of September. They will elect a parliament and ultimately a chancellor, probably after weeks of coalition negotiations. There will also be some state elections on the same day.
The absence of Angela Merkel, because she has decided to call it a day, will leave a huge hole in coverage of the elections and makes the overall outcome far less certain.
I’ve never read a biography of Merkel. There are several on the market, none of them with particularly eye-catching titles. I’ve meant to because I’ve read loads about other German chancellors.
Many of Merkel’s predecessors in the modern era were fascinating and complex characters, such as Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl. They left huge legacies, not least of which was the rebuilding of Germany after the devastation of the end of the Second World War, and the rebuilding of their country’s reputation after the unspeakable evils of the Third Reich.
Brandt was the great reforming chancellor. A bit like the post-war Labour government in Britain, he invested enormously in health, education, and social spending.
He was better known outside Germany as the chancellor who began the process of better relations between East and West. Schmidt carried on that work, and Kohl will be remembered always for his work in reunifying Germany.
Besides those gigantic achievements and those larger-than-life personalities, it might seem a struggle to figure out what Angela Merkel will be remembered for. In part, that’s because she doesn’t have a larger-than-life personality.
She finds it difficult to express emotion. There is nothing about her that’s flamboyant or loud. However, many of the larger-than-life personalities that preceded her saw their careers clouded in scandal.
Brandt chose to resign when one of his closest aides was discovered to be a German spy. Kohl’s later years were dogged by a financial scandal. There’s never been a hint of scandal or impropriety throughout Angela Merkel’s long career.
What there has been, and is still, is a sort of quiet but implacable toughness. As a younger politician she was widely seen as Helmut Kohl’s protégé — so much so that she was sometimes referred to as Helmut’s little girl.
But when Kohl became implicated in allegations (later proved true) that his (and Merkel’s) CDU political party had been given under-the-counter donations, it was Merkel who publicly demanded that he come clean. It was said that until his dying day, Kohl never forgave her.
She seems afraid of nothing, although she has publicly confessed to a phobia of dogs. Vladimir Putin (who else?) tried to discommode her by bringing a large black labrador to a tete-a-tete with her.
If he was expecting her to break down or run out of the room, he was disappointed. She maintained her composure and was heard to say later that he obviously needed to do that sort of thing to prove his manhood.
There was of course that reasonably long period when Angela Merkel was the politician we in Ireland loved to hate. When we made a dog’s dinner of our economy in the late 2000s, we were all astonished in Ireland that she, and Germany, didn’t gallop to our rescue.
We had had access to virtually free European money for the best part of a decade. We had used it to buy a couple of elections with massive increases in public spending alongside major reductions in taxation. But even more than that we had used the money to fuel an enormous housing bubble.
Nobody in Ireland (with a couple of honourable exceptions) seemed to notice how our housing bubble turned the law of supply and demand on its head. The more houses we built, the more expensive they became.
We believed that our unique version of a pyramid scheme would last forever. But when it collapsed in on itself, we were outraged that the chancellor of the richest country in Europe seemed to think that we had caused the mess, therefore we should fix it ourselves.
We’d got so used to believing by then that the world owed us a living that we couldn’t understand why Angela Merkel’s first priority would be to save German banks from destruction. Who does she think she is, we all thought?
Doesn’t she know that we’re the adorable Irish with our quaint ways and our well-behaved football fans? For quite a while, RTÉ’s Après Match crew of comedians made a career of imitating Angela addressing the Irish nation, always calling us pixieheads and sometimes stroking a white cat in the manner of a Bond villain.
Somehow or other, we got through that retrenchment. There was immense pain and political collateral (we all remember that) and a lot of the time, the wrong people carried the burden of recovery. But we recovered and maybe came to grudgingly accept that perhaps Angela’s instincts were the right ones. We needed to do it for ourselves.
Still we thought of Angela Merkel as cold and heartless. Then in 2015, as a migrant and refugee crisis swept across Europe, Angela Merkel did a most un-Merkel like thing.
She opened her country’s border to refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries, and tens of thousands of people came. To her own incredulous people, she said “we can manage this” — a phrase that in German became synonymous with her.
Here’s the truth of it. If you were an artist trying to paint a portrait of Angela Merkel, you’d have a hard job trying to figure out what side of her to capture. Underneath a somewhat demure exterior, there is a character of steel.
She is at heart a right-wing politician, who has spent her career preventing Germany moving to the right. She’s a conservative thinker, capable of really radical political initiatives. She’s as tough as a boot and has a heart when it’s needed.
At the heart of everything she says and does and believes is her commitment to Europe. She will have an honoured place in the history of her country because of her domestic achievements, but she deserves a distinguished place in European history too.
She wasn’t responsible for the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, the terrorism crisis, the Brexit crisis. But she was at the frontline of management in those situations. No perfect solutions, but Europe is still standing.
She’ll be remembered perhaps as more a manager than a leader, and I would guess she’d be happy enough with that. Once, when she was asked why she almost always appears in public dressed in the same style, she said she was a public servant, not a model.
That may or may not be how she sees herself, it’s how she’ll be remembered. Germany’s public servant. Europe’s public servant.
A great public servant.