European Commission president, 2004-14
In the 10 years I led the European Commission, Angela Merkel was clearly the most influential national leader in Europe. But at her first G8 summit, in 2006, she was still relatively shy, maybe even a bit suspicious, as the photo shows.
My impression is that this didn’t have anything to do with her being a woman. Instead, I linked it to her background: politicians from countries with a recent totalitarian past tend to be a little reserved when they first enter the European or international stage.
I remember a conversation with her and the president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera. Piñera had entered politics at the end of the Pinochet era, after a career in business. She asked why did he engage in politics because she was trying to compare her political experience, coming also from a non-democratic country, with that of the Chilean president.
Merkel was very candid: she told us that when she was very young she wanted to join the Young Pioneers, the East German socialist party’s youth organisation, not because of its ideology but because there were some interesting activities and some travel there, but she understood that she would never be welcomed there as a daughter of a Christian pastor. Her attitude towards politics was one of a pragmatic distrust of power.
This also involved, at least at the beginning of her relationship with Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of France, her biggest ally in Europe, a very clear attitude of mistrust. I was in many meetings with the two of them because of the sovereign debt crisis, and you could hardly have found a more different pair of people in terms of temperament: one of them a true intuitive political animal, the other rational, prudent, detail-oriented.
I saw her emotionally hurt by comments Sarkozy made. Over a glass of wine after a dinner – Merkel likes a good glass of red, just not during Lent – she confessed to me that she heard the French president saying that France, unlike Germany, did not constantly have to apologise for the past. She was almost crying when she relayed that episode.
People have an image of Merkel as being rational to the point of coldness. But I saw her several times with sincere emotion. She’s very German, at the end of the day, a patriot, and a passionate supporter of the German football team, who once complained to the Italian prime minister Mario Monti about his country’s players being too aggressive in a match against her side.
And yet she is very rationally pro-European: in spite of her suspicions, she tied the fate of the German people to the European Union and the eurozone, eventually supporting all the instruments introduced to protect the single currency. With Sarkozy, too, she knew that it was vital for Germany and France to find a common ground, and she worked on that.
Germany in the Merkel era has been criticised for allowing economic interests to influence its stance on Russia. That overlooks her strong support for sanctions after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and her clear words on the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
With Vladimir Putin, the only other leader from that photo in 2006 who is still in power, Merkel always got the tone right. She has shown respect for Russia and its history, and she would have never called it a “regional power” like Obama did. At the same time, she was always extremely firm on matters of principle.
I remember the 2007 EU-Russia summit in Samara and a conversation between Putin, Merkel and myself. There had recently been a rupture of the Druzhba pipeline system, which is crucial for transmitting oil to western Europe and the Baltic states. We knew Russia was behind it, but Putin denied it, claiming it was an accident. Merkel pushed him brilliantly. Why don’t you repair it, she asked. It’s expensive, Putin said. We’ll pay for it, Merkel replied. Putin lost his temper at that point. Why are you always defending the Baltics, he asked us.
Merkel had learned something from Helmut Kohl: in the European Union, you have to pay attention to everyone, not just the big personalities and the big countries.
You could also see that at G20 summits: most leaders enter the room and only shake hands with their counterparts. Merkel was different. She would also say hello to the aides of different delegations. She wouldn’t just say hello to Obama, she would also speak to Mike Froman, the US president’s Sherpa. Of course, Froman was delighted.
Why was she doing it? I think it’s partly her temperament, but she also knew she could get more information out of the aides who had read the paperwork with more detail than the heads of state.
UK prime minster, 1997-2007
Angela Merkel has often defined modern Germany. Not in terms of her longevity in office, but in the spirit she has symbolised: calm, assured, reasonable and rational, sound common sense personified, collaborating across national boundaries, ushering in progressive reform at home.
I was close to her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, coming from the same wing of politics as we did, but got to know Angela first when she was leader of the opposition and then as chancellor during my final years as prime minister when we developed a friendship that has endured after I left office.
Her period as chancellor has seen her weather the financial crisis, the threat of populism, the refugee crisis, Brexit and now Covid. Her strategic management of the country, as well as deep contribution to European affairs, has been a bedrock of stability in a period of deep change and challenge.
Many will remember her chancellorship for highly competent crisis management, pragmatism and seriousness. But my recollections of our interactions that are as much about her warmth, her wisdom and her humour. One of the recent times we met in Berlin we concluded a meeting on the future of Africa, only for her to realise the Chancellery appeared completely deserted. Unperturbed, Angela got up and said she would escort us out the building herself. After a number of wrong turns, the building being something of a labyrinth, she finally managed to escort us out, but completely without irritation or any sense of status.
Each politician has a dominant part of their political psyche. For Angela, it is seeing compromise, and the navigation of political challenge with the maximum attention to practical solution, as a strength and not a weakness.
Throughout the eurozone crisis, she performed an intractable task: helping the poorer countries of the European Union in the face of the existential threat to their stability, whilst keeping German public opinion onside, which not unnaturally felt Germany should not have to bail out those countries whose reforms were proceeding too slowly.
In fact, her legacy on Europe is to have steered it through extraordinarily difficult times, when a Europe now of 27 countries has had to struggle with multiple crises. I know how she felt about Brexit – she was profoundly saddened by it. But she was always afterwards determined not to be churlish about the decision the British had taken.
Even her greatest domestic crisis – the pledge to take a million Syrian refugees – came from a place of compassion.
She was the arch anti-populist, in character and policy. Her leadership will be deeply missed.
Italian prime minister, 2006-08
The last time I met Angela Merkel was in Assisi in 2018 when the Franciscan Friars conferred on her the “Lamp of Peace” because of her merits in preserving peace in Europe. During the ceremony I reflected on the reasons why she deserved the award: not because of her strong declarations or unexpected actions, but rather for succeeding in balancing Germany’s national interests with the exigencies of the European project. Indeed, while acknowledging the increasingly dominant role of Germany in the economy of the continent, she was also able to mediate between nationalistic pressures and the solidarity with European partners.
Although this dilemma arose on many occasions, she always managed to find a final compromise, as in the Greek and the Syrian refugee crises. She was able to reconcile short-term pressures with the long-term interests of European solidarity, which is indispensable also for the future role of Germany in the world.
Thanks to the trust that the German people have granted her, Chancellor Merkel has had the opportunity to develop a new European strategy after the pandemics. The next-generation EU is not only the symbol of the common fight against the crisis but also and foremost a sign of the irreversibility of the European project. This is the great legacy that Angela Merkel will leave for the future of Germany and Europe.