Why Angela Merkel is critical to Europe and the world

Earlier this week, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, announced that she would be running for a fourth term.

Her electoral run would be significant in any event – but in the aftermath of Brexit and the recent American election that will bring Donald Trump into office next year, it is even more so.

But what is it about Mrs Merkel that makes her unique and the importance of her victory that profound? And what does it say about Europe and the West in the 21st century?

A year ago, I was having lunch with two senior diplomats from two European countries. Between the two of them, there were decades worth of experience in diplomacy. In discussing the challenges facing Europe, both bemoaned the lack of leadership that existed in Europe at present. They were utterly convinced that most European political leaders today were, essentially, lightweight amateurs. The exception that both of them noted was Mrs Merkel.

For the two of them to agree was intriguing – the two diplomats had barely interacted before, but their decades of experience had both led them to this conclusion.

The reasons were simple: most European political leaders had earned their political acumen after the Cold War had ended. The exception was Mrs Merkel – and thus, she knew what the stakes were when politics meant the difference between war and peace at home and not simply forays abroad.

We tend to forget that in Europe there was a time not very long ago when nuclear war between the West and the then Soviet Union was a very real possibility – and it was a very careful set of diplomatic and strategic decisions that kept it from happening. Mrs Merkel was a part of that era. That was the difference they saw.

As Mrs Merkel announces she is running again, there are reasons to be somewhat lacking in enthusiasm. This will be her fourth time running – and politics does need fresh blood from time to time. But on the other hand, Europe is going through a deeply troubling era, with the referendum on Britain leaving the European Union, and an unpredictable president-elect due to take office in the United States next year. For a number of factors that contributed to those two rather shocking events, Mrs Merkel’s leadership in Germany is crucial.

For years to come, there will be analytical dissections of how the Brexit vote was possible, and how the Trump presidency could happen. It is too soon to come to a definitive explanation on either.

But one factor certainly played a role, based on the demographic breakdown of the votes in both – and that is that a critical mass of white (mostly male) voters, felt the current system of politics left them out. In the UK that meant they saw Brexit as their vehicle for gaining meaning again. In the US, the same was true for Trump. Again, that is not the only factor – but it was a crucial one, and history will tell whether or not it was the most vital one.

Mrs Merkel faces that same challenge, but it isn’t just in Germany that she faces it. She may be standing for the position of German chancellor – but populations across Europe will be looking to see if this seasoned statesperson can genuinely exhibit leadership and vision that will tell that same kind of demographic that there is something better than the rank, nativistic populism that contributed to Brexit and the Trump victory. And if she fails, the forces of bigotry that now celebrate Brexit and Trump votes will be encouraged even further still.

It is not enough that Mrs Merkel wins next year. That is only part of the point. It is not even that she win with a big majority – that’s not really the point. It is, however, important that she win with a certain perspective in mind – to offer a sense of vision and hope for that part of the population that is susceptible to populism.

Herein lies the rub. The temptation politicians often feel in dealing with populism is to do one of two things – either to ignore it or to out-populist the populists. The first option underestimates populism and its appeal – and this is blatantly what happened in the UK and the US.

Germany and the rest of Europe ought not to make the same mistake. The second option, however, is immensely dangerous – because it means we allow, on a political level, the centre of mainstream politics to shift further and further to the right, which causes its own problems. In the United States, that is already happening, with the mainstreaming of incredible bigotry, as self-professed so-called alt-right backers of Donald Trump become deeply significant to the future of his presidency.

The third option, however, is what Mrs Merkel needs to do – and what all western politicians need to do – which is to come up with a vision that speaks deeply and with power about the future of countries in the West, and what is needed to make that future possible, without leaving anyone behind.

It will require immense leadership – which politicians haven’t shown much of in the recent past – but that is the unenviable task that lies ahead of Mrs Merkel, first and foremost.

Written by Dr HA Hellyer, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London. You can follow him on Twitter @hahellyer.