Angela Merkel: The new leader of the free world?

A Protestant pastor's daughter who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, Angela Merkel rose to become the "chancellor of Europe" who has outlasted a generation of world leaders.

Angela Merkel: The new leader of the free world?
Angela Merkel, here with Putin in 2012, excelled at Russian as a student. Photo:
Unlike her one-time partners on the global stage, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi, Merkel is still in power and running for another four-year term.
During her reign, she has taken centre stage in Europe's debt turmoil and refugee crisis, sparred with Russia over Ukraine and now, after Donald Trump's election, is being widely hailed as the torch-bearer of western liberal democracy.
With a doctorate in quantum chemistry, Merkel, 62, is known for a methodical and pragmatic approach to problem-solving, rather than for soaring oratory or big-vision statements.
Seemingly devoid of vanity and indifferent to the trappings of power, she lives in a Berlin flat with her media-shy scientist husband Joachim Sauer, shops in a local supermarket and spends holidays hiking in the Alps.
Germans seem to like it that way, given how past ideologues have plunged the country into catastrophe, and have re-elected “Mutti” (Mummy) twice since 2005.
Merkel's image as a reassuring leader was upturned last year when she took the unusually bold step of throwing open German borders to an influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones.
The biggest gamble of her political life won her praise from grateful asylum seekers who tearfully cheered “Mama Merkel”.  But it also fuelled a surge in racist hate crimes and rightwing populism, angered Merkel's coalition allies and saw her isolated within the European Union.
Even if the 2015 influx of almost 900,000 migrants spelt Merkel's biggest domestic crisis so far, she has since seen her approval ratings recover to around 60 percent as new arrivals have tapered off.
Despite the political damage, she heads into the 2017 campaign season as the strongest candidate, with no serious rival for the top post or likely challenger in her own conservative ranks.
Merkel was born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954 in the port city of Hamburg, but within weeks her father, a Lutheran clergyman, moved the family to a small town in the communist East, at a time when most people headed the other way. Seven years later they were living behind the Wall.
Biographers say life in a police state taught Merkel to hide her true thoughts behind a poker face. Like most students, Merkel joined the state's socialist youth movement, but she rejected an offer to inform for the Stasi secret police while also staying clear of risky pro-democracy activism.
The best student in her class, she excelled in maths and Russian, which would later help her keep up the dialogue with President Vladimir Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Wall fell in 1989.
During that momentous upheaval, the 35-year-old Merkel was working in a Berlin laboratory but quickly joined the nascent group Democratic Awakening. The group merged with the Christian Democrats of then chancellor Helmut
Kohl, who fondly if patronisingly dubbed Merkel “my girl”.
Merkel's mentor was not the last politician to underestimate her and pay the price.  When Kohl became embroiled in a campaign finance scandal in 1999, Merkel openly urged her party to drop the self-declared “old warhorse”.
The bold move kicked off her meteoric rise as youngest-ever and first female German chancellor in 2005.
In a party dominated by southern Catholic men, the twice-married, childless woman from the communist East was and remains an outsider. As party leader she has remade the CDU, anchoring it in the political centre by pushing social policies, abolishing compulsory military service and scrapping nuclear power.
During the eurozone crisis, Merkel preached fiscal discipline and kept a tight grip on the nation's purse strings, soothing the angst of a thrifty populace fearful about its pensions.
Especially in southern Europe, Merkel has drawn open hatred as a puritanical “austerity queen” sometimes caricatured in Nazi garb.
Her image flipped with the refugee influx, when news weekly Der Spiegel portrayed her as “Mother Angela” with a nun's habit. With Brexit, the Trump election and the rise of rightwing populism across Europe, new challenges await.
Merkel would have preferred to deal with Hillary Clinton, but after the election of Trump, who has called her refugee stance “insane”, she promised him close cooperation — provided it is based on “democracy, freedom and
respect for the law and the dignity of man”.
In a world shell-shocked by Trump's election, many now see Germany's bland, cautious veteran leader as a beacon of hope. Oxford University's Timothy Garton Ash wrote that “I'm tempted to say that the leader of the free world is now Angela Merkel”.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.