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How The 2010s Were Angela Merkel's Decade

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference at the conclusion of a European Union summit in Brussels, Dec. 13.
Olivier Matthys
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference at the conclusion of a European Union summit in Brussels, Dec. 13.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not known for being a passionate speaker, touting big ideas or earnest promises. Her personality type would not make her a great candidate for, say, president of the United States.

"She's not a charismatic type," says Stefan Kornelius, who has written a biography about Merkel. But "[German] people don't want to have the visionary thing and being led with flying flags. They just want to have predictability and the guarantee that things are calm and under control, and she gave that guarantee for pretty much all of her rule."

Germany's chancellor since 2005, Merkel says she won't seek reelection in 2021 and has already stepped down as leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union Party. Looking back at her long tenure, the past decade has particularly tested her leadership over the European Union's largest economy. It kicked off with a global financial crisis that threatened to break up the EU. Then by mid-decade, Russia's intervention in Ukraine and a historic influx of refugees, and later, a surge of populist movements across Europe further challenged the continent's cohesion.

"She kept a steady hand during a tumultuous time," Kornelius says.

And her approach is unlike most other democratic leaders.

The 65-year-old chancellor "is probably the least alpha-male type of policymaker that you can imagine," says Josef Janning, a former senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "She was not so much after providing strong personal leadership, but rather providing a working environment, which helps to articulate positions, negotiate and arrive at some common compromise outcome."

This pragmatic deal-making was crucial at the start of the decade, as the American financial crisis was spreading globally, threatening to divide the eurozone. Greece's economy was falling apart, with high unemployment and violent street protests in Athens. By 2015, the country had already been bailed out twice — to the tune of a quarter of a trillion dollars — and was once again on the verge of bringing back its old currency and breaking with the eurozone.

Merkel feared that if one EU member left, others would follow. The EU bailed Greece out once again, the bloc held together and Greece exited the bailout program three years later, able to borrow normally again after years of austerity measures.

Over the years, "Merkel's approach was to do whatever it takes to prevent the EU from falling apart," says Janning. "She has been remarkably successful because there were severe crises, there were profound challenges to the integrity and to the coherence of the EU and it survived."

Among the tough decisions she's made in the past decade: phasing out nuclear power after Japan's Fukushima disaster, standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine and allowing more than a million war refugees from Syria to resettle in Germany.

Janning says many of these decisions didn't go far enough. After the Greek debt crisis, Merkel could have pushed to strengthen EU fiscal authority over member states, but she didn't. In the wake of the refugee crisis, she could have fought harder to establish a common EU immigration and asylum legislation, agency and border police, but that eluded her as well.

Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says Merkel's hallmark style of solving problems through compromise — always choosing a middle path — may have prevented lasting solutions to Europe's biggest problems.

"Merkel, like [President Bill] Clinton — and I think in this she imitated Clinton — espoused a kind of technocratic, 'there is no alternative' centrism that took the belief, the identity factor out of politics or rather pushed it to the sidelines where it was taken up by the extremists," she says.

Those extremists are gaining ground, Stelzenmüller warns. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party has become a powerful force in much of the country, while other EU countries are now run by populist leaders who see Merkel's leadership as outdated.

"They reject this ultra-pragmatic bargaining approach and rather create disruption by breaking with the rules," says Janning, "breaking with the establishment, breaking with the institutions of the parties in their own countries, and rather concentrating a lot of power on themselves and on a leadership circle around them."

And these threats to democracy are precisely why Merkel has been a crucial leader in the past decade, argues Kornelius.

"She will stand as an example on how democracy lives from compromise, from finding the middle ground, from not overreaching, and definitely not from arousing people wherever you stand and go," he says.

Merkel's biggest achievement, Kornelius says, "might be that she keeps up the flame of a liberal-minded democracy at a time when the foundation of our democracies are shaken, when we are questioning whether this kind of rule, this kind of government, is the right one for us; while populists all over the world rise and where the West as a unifying ideal of so many countries with the U.S. at its helm is collapsing."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.