German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session of the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, November 25, 2015.
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

On November 22, German Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrated ten years in power. In her time at the helm of Europe’s most powerful country and economy, she has demonstrated a remarkable ability to lead when many of her peers have seemed helplessly overwhelmed by current events. Most recently, after the devastating attacks in Paris on November 13, which the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, later claimed as its handiwork, Merkel declared resolutely, “Freedom is stronger than terror,” and she pledged to join the French government in rooting out the attackers. In short, as could be expected from someone who is sympathetic to the European project, Merkel responded to the tragedy in Paris with a call for greater solidarity between Europe and its allies.

Even before the Paris attacks, Merkel managed to remain in office during a decade that saw the largest economic downturn in the West since the Great Depression. She leveraged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grudging respect for her to help de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine and, among European Union powers, almost singlehandedly confronted what the United Nations has billed as the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II. Merkel has helped Germany, Europe’s reluctant hegemon, to position itself as a country that can lead during a crisis. And all this is to say nothing of her ability to keep the EU stitched together at a time when its future hardly seems certain.

In Germany, only Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer have held longer terms. And in the region, such stability is almost unheard of; Europe is known for its parliamentary democracies and short-lived coalition governments. So how does Merkel do it?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo each hold a white rose as they pay their respects to the victims of the November 13th attacks in Paris, France, November 25, 2015.
Etienne Laurent / Reuters

NOT CELEBRATING CELEBRITY

Some argue that Merkel’s popularity rests on her strong economic performance. Indeed, over her decade-long tenure, the country’s GDP and GDP growth rate have risen markedly, and the unemployment rate has shrunk. But her popularity cannot be so easily explained. In 2009, Germany saw an economic contraction of 5.6 percent, a sharp downturn in the critical export sector, and an uptick in the youth unemployment rate. An outside observer would not have been able to tell that Germany was in a recession, though, by looking at Merkel’s approval ratings, which rose from 63 percent in 2008 to 67 percent in 2009. Although not Putin-esque (his ratings are at 89 percent) or permanent (Merkel’s popularity is currently at a four-year low of 54 percent), these are the sorts of approval numbers that U.S. President Barack Obama can only dream of, even in a year when the U.S. economy is at the cusp of full employment.

In a world that loves to celebrate celebrity and is fascinated by lightning-rod politicians, Merkel is measured and rational. Her style is best characterized by her nickname Mutti (or “Mommy”), and she is perhaps best known for being, well, boring. Her speeches are staid, not snappy. Her policies are defined by moderation, not ambition. Even her physical mannerisms suggest a thoroughly practical nature. She once explained that she adopted her trademark “Merkel diamond” pose, in which she stands with her hands placed solidly in front of her ribcage as she braces her fingertips against each other, because it helps her with her posture and gives her something to do with her hands. Rational, yes. Exciting, no. But it works in a country that hungers for stability.

The Merkel "diamond."
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Indeed, Merkel became the leader of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), when it was in crisis and desperately seeking stability. A scandal implicating former Chancellor Kohl and former party Chairman Wolfgang Schäuble in illegal financing in the late 1990s threw the party into turmoil and prompted the search for a new leader. Even though Merkel was a newcomer to the CDU’s political scene, in 1999, she penned an opinion piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung urging the party to divorce itself from Schäuble. Her article sent shockwaves through the party and within months she was crowned chairwoman of the CDU. She steadily began to take center stage in German politics.

Not everyone appreciates Merkel’s sober, cerebral approach to politics. Multiple pundits, including German journalist and author Dirk Kurbjuweit, have argued that Merkel’s calm, cautious style has siphoned away the lifeblood of Germany’s democracy by stifling political debate. In the words of Peer Steinbrück, who was the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for chancellor in 2013, she has returned Germany to the exceedingly bland and bourgeois nineteenth century “Biedermeier era.” Others, including members of the Green Party, have expressed frustration that Merkel has sedated the opposition into silence by essentially being either unavailable for spontaneous comments or simply so dull that no one can find anything debate-worthy in her statements. And finally, there is the assertion that Merkel has created a political landscape where the only option is to submit to her leadership, and thus to her policies. For example, her quiet but forceful approach to the European debt crisis allowed Schäuble, now Germany’s finance minister, to insist in a 2013 piece for The Guardian that “We Germans don’t want a German Europe,” even as Europe was compelled to follow Merkel’s calls for austerity.

For all that, though, Merkel’s temperate style works. After all, she is still in power and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And, abroad, she still holds sway. Because Germany is the closest Russia has to a friend in the West (it helps that Merkel can speak Russian), the United States has essentially outsourced all Western negotiations with Russia to Germany. Merkel’s position as the linchpin of this strategy, which has cast Germany in a role of great geopolitical importance, is at least partly due to the fact that she focused many of her early years in office on turning Germany into the de facto leader of the EU that it is today. She steered a resilient Germany through the global financial crisis from 2007–08 and thereby strengthened its position within Europe, and shored up the country’s relationships with its political allies, giving it the stature and trustworthiness that the United States needs in its dealings with Putin.

THE CHANCELLOR’S CHALLENGES

But Merkel’s long tenure rests on more than her ability to tame Russia. In an ironic twist, it’s Germany’s much-lauded economic strength that has brought Merkel her toughest political challenge yet: the refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq and Syria are expected to cross Germany’s borders this year alone. It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many refugees Germany has taken in during the crisis so far, but a record of nearly 300,000 entered the country in September alone, more than the 2014 total, and reliable estimates place the number at well over 800,000. They are escaping political and sectarian violence at home to go to stable, strong, and (mostly) welcoming Germany.

Migrants queue on a bridge crossing the border river Inn at the German-Austrian frontier between Braunau and Simbach am Inn near Passau, Germany, November 1, 2015.
Michael Dalder / Reuters

The rest of Europe’s response to the crisis has been disastrous. In Austria, 71 refugees tragically suffocated in the back of a truck, and, in Hungary, thousands of other refugees were greeted by razor-wire fences. Germany’s principled approach to this mass movement of people has been more laudable. Merkel’s refugee policy is to take in 800,000 asylum seekers this year, many times more than other European countries. Of course, she may yet bow to political pressures, particularly in the wake of the bloody terrorist attacks that recently shook Paris, but so far Merkel has emphasized that asylum seekers have the right to pursue safety in Germany, working toward a more efficient system of controlling and processing incoming refugees, and, particularly critical, persuading the rest of Europe to help shoulder some of the responsibility for handling what’s been called “one of the greatest litmus tests” of liberal values in the EU’s history. 

Of course, Merkel’s refugee policies have generated enormous controversy, particularly at home. As a result of finally taking a stand on a hot-button issue, Merkel has been blasted for pushing “moral imperialism.” Horst Seehofer, chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union, the CDU’s sister party in predominantly Catholic Bavaria, has been one of the most damning critics of Merkel’s refusal to set an upper limit on refugees in Germany. And there are mounting fears about how the chancellor’s welcoming stance on refugees might add fuel to far-right flames, particularly in the East, where the right-wing populist Pegida (“Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident”) movement is proving to be more than a passing political moment. She has also been criticized for isolating many of her political allies, such as Vice Chancellor of Germany Sigmar Gabriel, who has called Merkel’s refugee transit zones “detention centers.” She’s well aware of her current domestic unpopularity: At a town hall meeting in Nuremberg in October, two men said that they thought that Merkel’s policy is “simply all good,” to which the chancellor quipped, “Well, that makes three of us.” 

Still, although some of Merkel’s policies will remain controversial, her position as chancellor is secure. Despite growing dissent within her own party and the swell of frustrated Germans, she still outperforms any potential political successor. Given her remarkable trajectory and the fact that, now more than ever, Europe needs a leader with her sort of indefatigable determination, she seems set to persist. And, overall, this is a good thing, for Germany and for the rest of the world.

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  • CLAIRE GREENSTEIN is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a 2015–16 Fellow in the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. 
  • BRANDON TENSLEY is a 2015–16 Luce Scholar in Thailand. He was a 2012–13 Fulbright Scholar in Germany.
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