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Fears of hole in EU’s heart as German ‘Queen of Europe’ Merkel departs

Ahead of elections this weekend to choose her replacement after 16 years, officials and experts say departure ‘leaves a void,’ though her legacy also includes shortcomings

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during a press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, on August 10, 2021. (Christian Mang/Pool/AFP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during a press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, on August 10, 2021. (Christian Mang/Pool/AFP)

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AFP) — Angela Merkel’s exit from the stage is sparking fears of a hole at the heart of the European Union during challenging times — but there are also hopes for a wind of change.

Tributes have been growing for the German leader — dubbed “Queen of Europe” by some observers after 16 years as chancellor — ahead of elections this weekend to choose a successor.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte praised Merkel’s “enormous authority” after helping steer Europe through years of turbulence that included the financial crisis, migrant crisis, Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who served under Merkel as German defense minister, underscored how important the former physicist’s analytical skills had been for unlocking interminable EU negotiations.

“She can always put things in the context of the many years in Europe she helped to shape,” von der Leyen said. “And often, when we’ve hit an impasse, she’ll throw out an idea and then we’re moving again. We’ll miss that.”

“Of course, her departure leaves a void,” Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Center told AFP.

He called the departure of the EU’s longest-serving current leader “the end of an era” for the 27-nation bloc.

Newly appointed German chancellor Angela Merkel takes the oath of office in the parliament in Berlin, on November 22, 2005. (AP Photo/Fritz Reiss, File)

Pragmatic manager

Few will remember Merkel for any visionary speeches on Europe’s future.

But it has been her much-touted image as a pragmatic manager that has seen her help to maintain unity inside the EU during a period Emmanouilidis dubbed one of “permanent crisis.”

He said that she had shown “continuity and firmness,” qualities that have made her the preeminent leader in Europe.

“The next chancellor will first have to gain stature before being able to look to replace her in this role.”

Merkel’s steady hand has seen her carve out a positive reputation across much of the continent.

In a survey carried out in 12 EU countries by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 41 percent of respondents said that they would back Merkel if they were voting for the fictitious role of EU “president.”

“Merkel’s approach of searching for compromises between competing interests is a major source of Berlin’s positive image,” the think-tank said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks past debris as she visits the flood-ravaged city of Iversheim, near Bad Munstereifel, North Rhine-Westphalia state, western Germany, on July 20, 2021. (Wolfgang Rattay/Pool/AFP)

But she has also attracted criticism for her handling of some key challenges.

During the eurozone debt crisis of the early 2010s, Merkel was lambasted for the delay in coming to the aid of indebted countries, such as Greece, spurring fears of a collapse of the single currency.

She then drew widespread popular ire in Greece for the severe conditions imposed on Athens under a bailout.

‘Hesitancy’

Former European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker hailed Merkel for opening Germany’s borders during the 2015 migrant crisis and for helping craft a 750 billion euro ($879 billion) rescue plan from the pandemic.

But he pushed back at those portraying her as the savior of Europe.

“It is the German narrative that would like to present it as if she had been at the origin of all the solutions to these serious crises,” Juncker said. “I do not underestimate the role she played, but I am far from overestimating it after having experienced her hesitancy.”

Former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker participates at EU headquarters in Brussels, on December 3, 2019. (Kenzo Tribouillard, Pool Photo via AP)

Former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio wrote an editorial criticizing Merkel’s “strategy of waiting for desperate situations to call for desperate measures.”

She argued that this has “often benefited those who break the rules,” such as right-wing Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, accused of dragging his country away from European values.

Merkel departs with the EU facing a raft of historic challenges — from recovering after the pandemic, to fighting climate change, to fashioning a geopolitical role for a Europe caught between the United States and China.

“Many of the most pressing challenges Europe faces are impossible to address with the Merkel method,” analysts from the ECFR wrote, insisting that they require “not only cosmetic changes but political support for more radical solutions.”

“The EU will need a more visionary and courageous Germany to strengthen its foundations and defend its place in the world.”

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