Angela Merkel’s unexpected announcement about the end of her political career, at least in Germany, was followed by ‘end of era’ reflections about the troubling future facing Europe without the continent’s ‘anchor of stability’. But for your Brief’s author, an altogether different picture came to mind.
Images have the power to reflect a whole biography. Intentionally and frequently by accident, they can reveal the zeitgeist of a period emerging from unsung heroes.
While Merkel told reporters that she would no longer chase the leadership of her party (and Germany after 2021), your humble reporter could only picture her back in 2007, sitting together with Putin…and Konnie.
The Russian president welcomed her and reporters in Sochi by letting his pet Labrador through the door. The stone-faced chancellor, who has been possessed by a crippling fear of dogs since she was a child, kept her nerves under control while Putin offered photographers the best of his evil smiles.
It is the same cold and passive temper she kept while the financial world, the euro area and her governing coalition started to crumble over the past years.
Some pictures were never taken but would have been priceless, like young Merkel attending her weekly sauna break with her friend the night of 9 November 1989, while thousands of Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But it is in those moments where epic is absent, or history is not being written, that a character may be exposed with sincere beauty.
Her meeting with a group of fishermen in their hut in Lobbe (North East of Germany) revealed a sympathetic listener in a Vermeer-type scene.
In that early point of her career, before ‘Kohl’s girl’ became Germany’s ‘Mutti’ and ‘queen of Europe’, the physicists turned into politician already shown one of the skills she is credited for but is frequently forgotten in this age of bullies and messiahs.
She is a good listener. Partly it is because of her human empathy, so critical in her legacy-shaping decision to open the borders to the refugees in 2015. But it is also explained by her scientific background, and her way to handle politics and policy based on figures, data and facts, as her biographer Jacqueline Boysen said.
Her excess of pragmatism and poll-oriented manoeuvring made her an unimaginative leader, who did not take either Germany or Europe to the next level, her critics say.
Surely, she did not embody of the spirit of this tempestuous era. But she was rather the counterbalance Europe needed to muddle through the worst period of its history.
But after 13 years in power in Germany, leading Europe in more than one hundred summits, it is time to turn the page as she rightly saw.
Being a good listener is an essential skill for a leader. But they must be driven also by action, and not only reaction.
They should hear and grasp the frustration and hopes of their brothers and sisters in arms, and drive that energy towards a change that they can turn into a compelling vision.
Obama was the closest we had to that, and not only as a great listener, as he proved with Merkel herself in the German mountains.
Merkel would pass the EU’s helm to Macron, once seen as the European Obama. But during the year and a half of his presidency, he has shown that his ‘Jupiterian’ presidency is in the antipodes of the expectations.
Unfortunately, deafness would only grow in the run-up to the European elections next may.
Candidates would offer self-made formulas to save the EU without paying attention to the Union the Europeans want. Or they will be busy blaming others for the mistakes they are not ready to solve.
It is an oxymoron to uphold and improve a united Europe if you neglect the others.
The challenge will be to find those who will listen before they speak. In that regard, Merkel will be missed.
by Alexandra Brzozowski
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Look out for…
With mutual trust between East and West back to lows unseen since the Cold War, the Munich Security Conference Core Group Meeting takes place in Minsk, Commissioner Johannes Hahn will take part.
Views are the author’s