In Merkel, Europe Loses a Leader


AngelaMerkelannounced Mondaythat she would step off the political stage when her term as Germany’s chancellor ends in 2021. It may happen sooner if elections are called before that, but in any case it leaves plenty of time “to get ready for the time after me,” as Ms. Merkel put it — to check out potential successors and future challenges. This is the time to look back at one of the most remarkable Western leaders of our time.

It is not charisma, daring or eloquence that have made her remarkable. Like her mentor and predecessor as chancellor, Helmut Kohl, Ms. Merkel is rather bland in speech and demeanor. Herslogan in the last election— “For a Germany where life is good and we enjoy it” — about summed up the comforting combination of moderation, stability, centrism and decency that have rallied voters behind “Mutti” (Mommy). In her 13 years at the helm, Germany has been a fairly calm and prosperous place, despite some political storms.

But it was precisely in that calm, consistency and decency, at a time when populists were rising in many corners of Europe, when Vladimir Putin was reviving a hostile Russia, President Trump was ceding America’s leadership role and Britain was trying to quit the European Union, that Ms. Merkel made her mark and assumed a role as the de facto “leader of the free world.”

The title may be an exaggeration; it may be more accurate that she became aware of the need to manage a leaderless free world. Yet it is Ms. Merkel, trained as a scientist in East Germany and the first woman to serve as German chancellor, who has stood up to Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, who nobly — some now say foolishly — opened Germany’s doors to refugees and who agreed to three bailouts to save Greece from bankruptcy. All that was done without drama, without a lot of words and often without rush (“merkeln” has come to mean “to dither”).

Many of Ms. Merkel’s decisions have garnered as much criticism as praise. Her insistence on austerity when Greece was on the ropes was widely denounced as excessive. The opening of Germany’s border to refugees has been blamed for the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party and the decline of Ms. Merkel’s popularity, which was on display in the poor showing by her Christian Democratsin Hesse state electionson Sunday. Yet Ms. Merkel’s principled action, so different from the nativist opposition to immigrants trumpeted by European populists and Mr. Trump, also exemplifies the moral precepts, forged growing up in a Lutheran home in East Germany, that are behind Ms. Merkel’s instincts and style. Her typically understated plea to Germans during the refugee crisis was simply, “Wir schaffen das” — We’ll manage it.

That’s what Ms. Merkel, now 64, has done for 13 years, listening more to the “inner compass” of her Lutheran faith rather than any ideology, against which she was inoculated by her years behind the Iron Curtain; preferring blandness and ambiguity to stridency, caution to expediency. “I’m a bit liberal, a bit Christian-social, a bit conservative,” she said in 2009, an approach she demonstrated inher handling of gay marriage last year, when she allowed a vote on the issue in the Bundestag while joining the minority in voting “no.”

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In foreign affairs, Ms. Merkel has been a strong champion of the European Union, NATO and protecting a rules-based international order. Under her, Germany has increased its role in international security, and Ms. Merkel has made a commitment to raising military spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product. APew Research Center surveyof 25 countries found that 52 percent of respondents had confidence in Ms. Merkel, more than the leaders of France, Russia, China and the United States. (Seventy percent lacked confidence in Mr. Trump.)

That’s a tough act for Ms. Merkel’s successor to follow, and major challenges lie ahead: reshaping a European Union without Britain, strengthening institutions that govern the euro, clashes with the Trump administration and neighboring populists, dealing with Russia.

But Ms. Merkel is doing the right thing in stepping down. “I don’t want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics,” she said before she became chancellor, and of late she and her coalition have looked tired. Her polls have fallen, and 13-plus years are more than enough for any political leader. And the best leaders are those who know when it’s time to exit.

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