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ANGELA MERKEL

Merkel, Germany’s ‘eternal’ chancellor, prepares to leave the stage

She was called "the leader of the free world" as authoritarian populists were on the march in Europe and the United States but Angela Merkel is wrapping up a historic 16 years in power with an uncertain legacy at home and abroad.

Merkel, Germany's 'eternal' chancellor, prepares to leave the stage
Angela Merkel in the Bundestag on Wednesday. Photo: dpa | Kay Nietfeld

In office so long she was dubbed Germany’s “eternal chancellor”, Merkel, 67, leaves with her popularity so resilient she would likely have won a record
fifth term had she wanted to extend her mandate.

Instead, Merkel will pass the baton as the first German chancellor to step down entirely by choice, with a whole generation of voters never knowing
another person at the top.

Her supporters say she provided steady, pragmatic leadership through countless global crises as a moderate and unifying figure.

Yet critics argue a muddle-through style of leadership, pegged to the broadest possible consensus, lacked the bold vision to prepare Europe and its
top economy for the coming decades.

What is certain is that she leaves behind a fractured political landscape, with the question of who will govern Germany next wide open just weeks before
the September 26 election.

Assuming she stays on to hand over power, she will tie or exceed Helmut Kohl’s longevity record for a post-war leader, depending on how long the
upcoming coalition negotiations drag on. 

‘Do the right thing’

The brainy, unflappable Merkel has served for many in recent years as a welcome counter-balance to the big, brash men of global politics, from Donald
Trump to Vladimir Putin.

With Vladimir Putin at a 2009 meeting in Berlin. Photo: dpa | Gero Breloer

A Pew Research Center poll late last year showed large majorities in most Western countries having “confidence in Merkel to do the right thing regarding
world affairs”.

However the last days of her tenure have also been marred by what Merkel called the “bitter, dramatic and terrible” return of the Taliban to power in
Afghanistan – a debacle in which she shares the blame as German troops pull out.

A trained quantum chemist raised behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel has long been in sync with her change-averse electorate as a guarantor of stability.

Her major policy shifts have reflected the wishes of large German majorities – among them phasing out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster – and attracted a broad new coalition of women and urban voters to the once arch-conservative CDU. 

‘Austerity queen’

Before the coronavirus pandemic, her boldest move – keeping open German borders in 2015 to more than one million asylum seekers – seemed set to determine her legacy.

But while many Germans rallied to Merkel’s “We can do it” cry, the move also emboldened an anti-migrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), ushering a far-right bloc into parliament for the first time since World War II.

At the same time, hardline leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban accused her of “moral imperialism” with her welcoming stance.

Six years on, she lamented this month, the European Union appears no closer to a unified policy on migration.

The woman once known as the “climate chancellor” for pushing renewables also faces a mass movement of young activists arguing Merkel has failed to face up to the climate emergency, with Germany not even meeting its own emissions-reduction commitments.

She became Europe’s go-to leader during the eurozone crisis when Berlin championed swingeing spending cuts in return for international bailout loans for debt-mired countries.

Angry protesters dubbed her Europe’s “austerity queen” and caricatured her in Nazi garb while defenders credit her with holding the currency union together.

More recently, despite admitted missteps in the coronavirus pandemic including a sluggish vaccine roll-out, Germany’s infection levels and death toll have remained lower than those of many European partners relative to its population.

Kohl’s ‘girl’ to ‘Mummy’

Merkel, the EU’s and G7’s most senior leader, started as a contemporary of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac when she became Germany’s
youngest and first female chancellor in 2005.

She was born Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954 in the port city of Hamburg, the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman and a school teacher.

Her father moved the family to a small-town parish in the communist East at a time when tens of thousands were headed the other way.

She excelled in mathematics and Russian, which has helped her maintain the dialogue with the other veteran on the world stage, Russia’s Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Merkel kept the name of her first husband, whom she married in 1977 and divorced five years later.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel, who was working in a chemistry lab, joined a pro-democracy group that would merge with Kohl’s Christian Democrats.

With Helmut Kohl at a CDU conference in 1991. Photo: dpa | Michael Jung  

The Protestant from the east whom Kohl nicknamed his “girl” would later be elected leader of a party until then dominated by western Catholic patriarchs.

As she rose to power, party rivals sneeringly called her “Mutti” (Mummy) behind her back but she deftly – some said ruthlessly – eliminated potential challengers.

Although her name has come up on wish lists for key EU or United Nations posts, Merkel has said she will leave politics altogether.

Asked on her final trip to Washington in June what she looked forward to most, she replied “not having to constantly make decisions”.

By Deborah Cole

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POLITICS

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”.

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