With Gallic gallows humour, French president François Mitterrand said of German unification in 1990 that he liked the country so much he “would prefer to have two of them”.
With Angela Merkel as chancellor since 2005, Europe had the best of both worlds. Born in Hamburg, in West Germany, and raised north of Berlin in the communist east, Merkel continued the Bonn-era belief of a stable Germany as an anchor of European integration. Confronted with a conveyor belt of EU crises as chancellor, however, her response drew on her East German biography. Like millions of others raised on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Merkel knows first-hand that freedom and prosperity are not a given and that, without an ability to adapt, familiar certainties can vanish overnight.
For Irish observers of a certain age, there was always something pleasingly familiar about Angela Merkel. Obsessed with people not knowing her business, she believed in hard work and had little time for show-offs. She didn’t always speak our language, particularly economically, but behind the severity was always fairness.
During Brexit talks she was always more open to argument than entitlement. Her unshowy support for Irish interests understood their overlap with Germany’s determination to maintain the EU single market at all costs. The hard bargain she drove on the Irish bailout – coming after, it’s worth remembering, Dublin’s unilateral decision to nationalise Irish bank debt – was motivated less by a Calvinist disgust at debt than a deep belief, as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, in personal self-responsibility. Her EU policy shifts – on bail-outs and, more recently, on joint pandemic debt bonds – illustrate her readiness to, eventually, nudge Germany into a domestic political minefield for a perceived greater European good.
More often, though, her thinking on the big questions was more tactical than strategic, coloured by existing majorities rather than an ambition to risk a leap and forge new alliances. On climate change, favouring what is possible rather than necessary has spared German industry today, but could be its ruination tomorrow.
Merkel, like all postwar German leaders, walked a tightrope, knowing that demands around Europe for greater leadership from Berlin, if met, will trigger denunciations of German EU hegemony. That haunted Margaret Thatcher in retirement, warning in her 1993 memoir that Germany "by its very nature ... is a destabilising, rather than a stabilising, force in Europe". A key question for historians: did the shift of tectonic plates in early 21st-century European politics, which saw Berlin emerge as first-among-equals, stabilise or destabilise the EU? Above all by allowing the UK depart on her watch, did the chancellor bring stability to the European chess board?