BRUSSELS: Ten years after she took office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands alone as the leader of a European Union (EU) that is grappling with multiple crises, despite the fact she has been weakened domestically, analysts said.
Merkel’s trailblazing decision to welcome refugees during the migration crisis came after she led the European Union’s response to the Ukraine conflict and helped keep Greece in the eurozone.
Over the years, Greeks have burned her effigy and eastern nations have blamed her for the flood of migrants, but Germany’s economic dominance combined with the weakness of Merkel’s counterparts have left her without rivals for the nickname “Queen of Europe.”
Yet, as she starts her second decade in office, what analysts call Merkel’s “moral” stance on migration now threatens her politically at home just when a tottering EU needs leadership most.
“Because the EU has been so abysmal at anticipating crises, it has fallen to Merkel to prevent the implosion of the EU,” Judy Dempsey of the Carnegie Europe think-tank told Agence France-Presse.
It is a sign of her influence that Merkel edged US President Barack Obama into third place in the Forbes world power rankings earlier this month, behind Russian President Vladimir Putin, while the Economist magazine dubbed her “the indispensible European.”
Her first term started quietly as she rebuilt ties with Washington after Paris and Berlin opposed the US invasion of Iraq, while deflecting efforts by Putin to sow divisions in the EU.
It was her second term, however, that saw Merkel truly take the lead in Europe’s dramas.
“Through the difficult situations and crises, she has played a leading role and a determining role,” Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Centre, told AFP.
Merkel at first dithered over the eurozone debt crisis, and Germany’s tough line on austerity made her a figure of hate in Greece where memories of the Nazi occupation run deep.
However, she took the helm in deciding Greece’s eurozone fate this year, holding head-to-head talks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at a summit as other leaders kicked their heels.
On Ukraine, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande went to Minsk to negotiate with Putin on a ceasefire in February this year while the rest of Europe was frozen out.
Merkel is reportedly a master at dealing with macho male politicians and she is reportedly the only European leader Putin respects.
But perhaps her most decisive display came with the migration crisis.
With refugees drowning by the thousand and Europe’s politicians paralyzed by fear of losing votes to nationalists, Merkel stunned the world by suddenly announcing that all Syrian refugees were welcome in Germany.
Yet that moment of leadership now threatens Merkel’s position.
Eastern European nations accused Merkel of encouraging migrants to stream though their countries to Germany, with Hungary’s hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orban railed against her “moral imperialism.”
Border controls introduced by many nations now threaten the EU’s Schengen passport-free area.
But most importantly for Merkel, her domestic poll ratings have been falling amid growing alarm in Germany.
“She is under severe pressure at home in a way she hasn’t been before, the wind in her face is very cold and very strong. Should she encounter more severe problems, that would create negative effects on Europe,” said Emmanouilidis.
Her sudden reaction reminded analysts of Merkel’s spur-of-the-moment decision after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan to phase out nuclear power.
Dempsey said the migrants decision was an “extraordinary miscalculation,” adding that “heart, emotion, humanity and moral stance is hugely important, but she did no strategic planning for the day after.”
But analysts said that while she remains in power, the new European order looks set to rely on her for leadership.
The absence of other strong European figures, and the decline of the Franco-German “axis” at the heart of Europe under the unpopular Hollande, is a key factor, analysts said.
Beyond Merkel herself, the economically and politically divided EU is also increasingly reliant on powerhouse Germany for direction.
“Nothing of substance can be done without having Germany on board,” said Emmanouilidis. “It’s the indispensible power – whoever is in charge in Berlin will play the leading role in Europe.”