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Angela Merkel

The famous banner read, ‘Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work’. The year was 2012 and a few Irish football fans sardonically noted that attending an away match with the national team might be met with a frown in Berlin and in particular from the person who was seen to lead the EU. Not the President of the EU Commission or the President of the EU Council. The view on the street was that Merkel was calling the shots.

Fast forward 8 years and Merkel is still undeniably seen as the pre-eminent voice in European politics. Angela Merkel is one of the most brilliant politicians of our era. She guided Germany through the financial crisis and the migration crisis with great authority.

On the deficit side, she failed to get cross-EU support for her open borders policy and had to patch things up with a deal with Turkey which I believe will come back to haunt us.

Nevertheless she is head and shoulders above all contemporary political leaders. Macron, while enormously influential on the EU stage, will need a second term to come anywhere Merkel’s impact.

This really matters at the moment as the German Government took over the Presidency of the European Council on July 1st for six months. Merkel has expressed her concern about the unravelling of the single market and about the fragility of the European project.

Even without the Presidency and even without Merkel, German influence is everywhere in the EU.

As a new MEP it is hard not to be struck by how German everything really is. There is no leader of the opposition in the Parliament. There is no weekly question time in the Parliament. There is not even a weekly Parliament. The Parliament, like the German one, meets once a month. The real work, like in the German one, is done in the Committees.

Trained as a quantum physicist, she grew up under the totalitarian regime of East Germany. She was 35 when the wall came down.

In response to the financial recession of 2009, she ensured the survival of the euro currency when that seemed far from certain.

Her response to the migration crisis saved the dignity of Europe.

More recently, her scientific and analytical approach to the assault on the established rules-based system (WTO, Paris Climate Accord, Iran nuclear deal) has been well handled. She has also kept the EU together in the face of Russian and Turkish provocation.

I would also suggest that she demonstrates the enormous value of gender diversity at senior leadership levels in any organisation. The words of New Yorker journalist, and Merkel biographer, George Packer are worth quoting in full; “She seems to have no vanity. I’m sure she does, but she seems to have none, and that’s been one of her great assets as a politician. Whenever she runs up against a powerful and vain male German politician, she’s inevitably underestimated. She bides her time, and then, when the moment is right, she gives a small but decisive shove, and that person has to find some other line of work. That’s been her way to the top from the beginning. She doesn’t need to win every argument. She doesn’t have to get in the last word. She quietly assesses the different factors involved in a given situation and then decides which way she wants to go, and does it quietly and without fanfare. ”

These are not qualities exclusive to her gender of course and those qualities are not easy to define or to separate from other innate qualities.

She is famously afraid of dogs and when Vladimir Putin brought his dog into a press conference he claimed it was not intended to frighten the German Chancellor. However Merkel remarked, “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he's a man. ... He's afraid of his own weakness.”

Her work ethic, self discipline and humility are characteristic of German Protestantism - her father was a Lutheran minister.

Her time as Chancellor will end in 2021. The race to succeed her will shape European politics and in particular how the EU navigates a rising China and a disruptive US.

This is why the question of who succeeds her as Chancellor is at least as consequential for Irish life as who wins the White House this week (unknown at time of writing).

By way of epilogue, one of the creators of the ‘Angela Merkel’ soccer banner married a German woman in 2019. Merkel turned down an invitation to the wedding but wrote what is a typically Merkel note of advice for the newlyweds.

“Marriage, like life itself, is not a comfortable and peaceful state. But a great adventure with many surprises and trials to pass.”

The same could be said about her extraordinary political career.

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