How Angela Merkel became Europe’s undisputed leader | Franziska Augstein

The German chancellor has done well over Ukraine. But she owes a lot to others

Last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel was not dubbed the “most powerful woman in the world”. Time magazine had done that a few years ago. Now, gender specifics are cast aside, as she claims the position of the European continent’s “most powerful political figure”, as the New York Times chose to call her. Interestingly, Germans do not take to her because she is powerful. We prefer a chancellor who is pedestrian, normal, like the potato soup she allegedly enjoys preparing, and who is adamant only when it comes to preserving the value of the euro.

Angela Merkel dragged François Hollande along. They both have exerted themselves diplomatically to make possible an end to the civil war in Ukraine. That was a wise move. It was not too difficult, though, to convince the French president to convene. Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Hollande has reinvented himself – he is, as it were, finally on stage.

Merkel has done a very good job. But she owes a lot to those who have helped her. There is, first of all, the president of the United States. Declarations to the contrary from the Republican party notwithstanding, Barack Obama has made it clear that he does not want to involve the US in further battlefields; he would prefer not to send weapons to Kiev. American interests are at stake: economic and geostrategic interests. But Obama seems to be of the view that it is more worthwhile to pursue those interests once the Europeans have sorted out the civil war in Ukraine.

Now, which is the leading and economically most stable country of the European Union? Well, yes – and that is why Merkel has found herself in the position of a prominent peacemaker. In her youth in East Germany, her mother, who came from West Germany, had told her time and again that the west was where the grass was greener. Accordingly, after German unification, Merkel felt that she’d arrived in the world of the good and the free. Ever since, she has had one overwhelming foreign policy idea: sticking to the United States.

In 2003, Merkel (at the time in opposition) was in favour of George W Bush’s Iraq war. Only when she became chancellor in 2005 was she compelled to engage properly with world politics. Back then, as is now the case, Germany was governed by a “grand coalition”: the two biggest parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, had shacked up. And back then, just as now, Merkel had at her side the social-democratic minister of foreign affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

With his reticence, his experience and unbiased views, Steinmeier is an excellent counsel. And Merkel has profited from his advice. Despite her inveterate dislike of Putin, she has become famous as one of his most reliable telephone partners.

For the Social Democratic party, the result is clear: in most polls, they continue to trail the Christian Democrats. For the European Union, the move of Merkel and Hollande was decisive: if there is indeed a lasting ceasefire in Ukraine, and eventually peace, the EU will have shown that it can do such a thing as foreign policy. Henry Kissinger will no longer need to ask for Europe’s telephone number.

Franziska Augstein is a politics editor for the Süddeutsche Zeitung

Franziska Augstein

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