Europe is losing its moral compass – how will it find its way without Merkel?

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<span>Photograph: Steve Parsons/AP</span>
Photograph: Steve Parsons/AP

During a farewell tour of European heads of state and government this summer, Angela Merkel went to see the Queen. The few filmed minutes of her arrival in Windsor are irresistible. On one side, the Queen in a green floral dress, her smile controlled by centuries of code and tradition. On the other, a shy-seeming woman in trousers and purple jacket, nodding her head too many times, trying to observe the correct rituals for greeting a monarch. Elizabeth and Angela: two opposite worlds, two entirely different functions, and yet, similarities. Those boring speeches no one dares to make any more. That style, that calm, that stability and that way of embodying their countries.

Merkel now embodies more than Germany; she embodies Europe. She’s a pop icon, who has entered our consciousness like a song. Mugs, T-shirts and even lemon squeezers are sold in her image. But her rise and longevity remain a mystery. How could this woman, so strangely indifferent to the trappings of power, take over a party held for half a century by conservative males, and then be elected four times in a row to lead one of the world’s great powers? How did she become such a role model that a schoolboy once asked her in all innocence: “Can a boy also become chancellor?”

For years, I’ve been watching, writing on and, most recently, making a film about Merkel. It hasn’t been a blind admiration but rather a fascination: because Germany’s first female chancellor, who led Europe’s most powerful economy for 16 years, emerged from a country that no longer exists. We hardly remember its name, or reduce it to three initials: GDR. What other world leader can claim such an extraordinary backstory?

Merkel retires from the German chancellorship having spent more than half her life in a Soviet bloc dictatorship, a country separated from its western half and excluded from the free world. How could she not be radically different? She has already had two lives: before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The most common criticism of Merkel is that she has “done nothing”. That she leaves no mark on history, unlike her predecessors. Konrad Adenauer integrated West Germany into the international community and helped lay the foundations of today’s EU. Helmut Kohl brought about the reunification of Germany and subsumed the deutschmark into the single European currency. Gerhard Schröder undertook brutal and unpopular labour law reforms to make Germany competitive. So what has Merkel done for posterity? She has no major reforms to her credit. But her political record, alongside her two lives, has two sides: it can be read in both directions.

She entered politics on a whim just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. An ordinary chemist, devoid of oratorical skills, charisma, political guile or even any particular agenda. And at 35, she found herself, by a quirk of history, in the right place at the right time. She knew what to make of it.

Merkel came to power when September 11 still cast a long shadow over the west. An uninterrupted series of European and global crises followed. Ambitious reform is certainly not in her DNA, and luckily it was not the priority the times demanded of her. Merkel showed she was more of a manager than a visionary.

Yet, as well as managing every crisis that came her way, she restored German prosperity, aided by the Schröder reforms that she had the foresight to support when she was still leader of the opposition. On Merkel’s watch, Germany also softened its image: from austere and unattractive to likable. For 16 years, Merkel has made Germany happy. The first secret of her longevity in power is that she was entirely in tune with her country and her times. She was in the right place at the right time.

The second criticism is that she was more German than European. In short: a selfish, inward-looking leader. The criticism comes in particular from France – a country that professes to prefer romantic ideas of “fraternity” and “solidarity” to the dull realism of German budgetary discipline – and Berlin’s habit of insisting on respecting the letter of the treaties that unite us.

But was it selfish to save Europe’s honour by reaching out to more than a million refugees, whom other leaders, notably French, pretended not to see? Although leader of the EU’s richest country, and so its biggest budget contributor, Merkel lacked the audacity required to drive the European Union forward. She has driven more than one French president crazy and exhausted four of them (Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande, Macron), by not responding decisively to the 2008 financial crisis, instead imposing a slowness that almost strangled the Greek population and cost Europe dearly. She overplayed German economic nationalism and engaged in diplomatic mercantilism with Russia and China. For a long time, she opposed Emmanuel Macron’s ambitions for a Europe-wide mutualisation of debt, a German taboo.

But who finally got Germany to agree to back a massive post-Covid recovery plan for Europe? Merkel was the one who led Germany, in the end, to its own European revolution. In an interview with Macron for my book on Merkel, I asked the president whether (as one German official had told me) his desire to be remembered for ambitious European projects had at times rankled the more pragmatic chancellor.

Macron admitted that he and Merkel came from “different mental universes” but that, while she took longer to think about proposals and faced immense constraints, in the end she came around to supporting the same ambitions. “I think the things we achieved together in Europe were exactly what she wanted.”

Macron, despite awkward beginnings, became her favourite French president because they are both, in their own way, political UFOs, neither from the left nor the right. Merkelism, like Macronism, consists of a skilful acrobatics of reconciling opposites.

Merkel’s faults, failings, mistakes and inflexibilities cost Europe dearly at times. Her departure is a turning point; it leaves Germany facing immense challenges, not least the climate crisis, and the chance to open a new page in its history.

So why will I will miss her? Because her flaws and her qualities have, to my mind, both been guided by her moral compass. Morality made her put an end to the career of Kohl, her former CDU mentor, in 1999 after he had let the party become tainted by scandal. Morality about decades of corruption and tax evasion in Greece made her excessively rigid during the euro crisis. And morality made her utter the three words “Wir schaffen das” (we’ll make it) to ask her country to take in a million refugees.

Related: Angela Merkel’s long reign as chancellor of Germany – in pictures

Her life experience in the “country that no longer exists” made her measure the price of the values she was deprived of: freedom (including for refugees), concern for unity and unconditional respect for her opponents, whether in the German parliament, in eastern Europe or on the other side of the Channel.

Her low-key style and flat speeches are the antithesis of the populist politics reinvented by Donald Trump and the architects of Brexit. Merkel often changed her mind, but never made a false promise, because she never promised anything. For her, the function of words is to describe reality. Despite her diplomatic acrobatics, her reliance on tactics and even her mediocrity, Merkel is the anti-Trump, the anti-Johnson, the anti-populist. Her morality as a leader is what I will miss.

Under Merkel, the CDU has dominated German politics for the past 16 years. As her era ends, the party stands defeated. But whatever shape the incoming coalition takes, German democracy will remain rock solid, and Germany will stay anchored in Europe. For Europe, and a turbulent, anxious world, however, Merkel’s departure is the loss of a reassuring beacon.

  • Marion Van Renterghem is the author of C’était Merkel, and director of the film Recherche Merkel désespérément.

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