Germany’s Angela Merkel headed Thursday (24 June) into what is expected to be her last EU summit, with admiration from her fellow leaders after 16 years in power tempered by a sober sizing-up of her achievements.
Characteristically unsentimental, the 66-year-old chancellor, who is retiring from politics this year, outlined a packed agenda for the Brussels meeting in her presumably last major speech to parliament.
It covered fighting the coronavirus pandemic, facing up to “provocations” from Russia and chasing an elusive deal on migration to the bloc – but not a word on her legacy.
Visitors to Berlin in recent weeks have highlighted the impact of the EU’s longest serving leader with her mild manner and cool gravitas, while some quietly lamented a lack of long-term vision.
EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who served for 14 years in Merkel’s cabinet, said last month Merkel was “infinitely valued” in Europe “because of her great experience”.
“When we’re at loggerheads, she’ll come with an idea and remind us of what’s important and break the impasse. That power to unite – we’ll of course miss that,” she said.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte hailed her “enormous authority”, saying she brings “reason and decency to politics”.
“When she starts to speak at the European Council, a lot of people are often still looking at their iPhones,” he said.
“But then they all put their iPhones away. Pens are put down. And we listen to her.”
Break for chips
On Thursday, even the co-chief of the opposition Greens, Annalena Baerbock paid homage to her leadership.
“Many people in this country are thankful that you in the last 16 years held Europe together in crisis situations,” said Baerbock, one of the candidates to replace her after September’s general election.
Merkel’s endurance in marathon negotiations became a trademark, and she once famously described her “camel-like” ability to store sleep.
Brussels became like a second home over the years.
As another endless summit dragged into the wee hours in 2016, she popped out to one of the city’s beloved snack shops, Maison Antoine, for a bag of chips with Andalusian sauce – a spicy mayonnaise with pepper and tomato.
She paid her own bill.
Two years later, she took part in an impromptu “beer summit” with the leaders of France, Belgium and Luxembourg around a convivial table on Brussels’ Grand-Place.
But it wasn’t always bonhomie with her fellow leaders, with the 2010-12 euro crisis in particular leaving lasting scars.
Merkel long maintained a strict line with debt-mired nations including Greece as it hurtled toward crashing out of the eurozone.
Her austerity policies inflicted suffering on already beleaguered populations, with some leaders arguing that cure was more painful than the disease.
Critics say compromises brokered to keep countries in the currency zone failed to address its enduring weaknesses.
Her 2015 refusal to slam the door on people fleeing war and misery brought 1.2 million asylum seekers to Germany and drove a wedge between ardent supporters and furious opponents.
Still unresolved migration policies in the bloc have fuelled far-right parties and bolstered populist leaders.
Merkel’s ambivalent stance on Russia also frequently alienated partners, particularly in eastern Europe who fear the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will embolden Moscow at their expense.
In parliament, Merkel threw her weight behind direct EU talks with President Vladimir Putin while urging “a united front against the provocations”.
The proposal immediately drew a nervous reaction from Ukraine, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba blasting it as “dangerous”.
Merkel, who brokered a hastily completed EU-China investment pact under the German presidency of the bloc in 2020, has also faced accusations of placing commercial interests over long-term strategic aims.
Constanze Stelzenmueller of the Brookings Institution said a lack of policy coherence coupled with Germany’s “woefully underfunded” defence capabilities threatened European stability.
“Like Merkel’s dithering over standing up to Moscow and Beijing, German military weakness has undercut the security of Europe and NATO,” she wrote last month.
German news weekly Der Spiegel said in a withering online editorial Thursday that “the EU is in worse shape today than at the beginning of her chancellorship in 2005”.
It said the fiscal gulf between north and south, Brexit, the rise of “illiberal democracies” such as Poland and Hungary and the failure to forge a “humane plan” for the EU’s external borders would stain her record.
“It’s not all Merkel’s fault. But because she led Europe’s biggest country and top economic power for 16 years, one can’t say the EU’s bad condition has nothing to do with her.”