By Alex Bregman
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been called “the most powerful woman in the world.” She’s now about to come face to face with the most powerful man in the world: President Donald Trump. So who is she and why does she wield so much power?
Merkel was born in West Germany in 1954 but grew up in Soviet-controlled East Germany. Before entering politics, she studied physics and received a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Then in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. It marked the end of the Cold War and the beginning of Merkel’s political career.
Merkel joined the conservative Christian Democratic Union political party and was elected to the Bundestag, Germany’s version of Congress, in 1990. Her political star quickly rose — she became the youngest person to serve in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s cabinet.
After Kohl lost the 1998 election, Merkel was appointed her party’s secretary-general before being elected its first female leader in 2000. Then, in 2005, Merkel made history again, elected the first female chancellor of Germany.
Some Germans affectionately call her “Mommy,” and on her watch, Germans have seen their country become the most economically competitive in Europe, overtaking France.
James Kirchick, author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age,” told Yahoo News, “The approval ratings that she’s enjoyed for most of her time in office are things that are basically unheard of in America.”
She’s also become the de facto leader of Europe as several countries have struggled to rescue their economies. After some hesitation, Merkel agreed to give aid to countries such as Greece, but only in exchange for major austerity measures. As Kirchick explained, “It’s been a tough road obviously these past seven or eight years of this crisis, but she has, I would say, implemented a policy that is popular amongst the majority of Germans who tend to look at Greece and Greeks as responsible for their own fate.”
Most recently, Merkel took center stage in the refugee crisis, opening Germany’s doors to almost half a million Syrian refugees, which is the most in Europe by far. President Trump took issue with the policy on the campaign trail, saying things like “Now Merkel, what did she do? She has destroyed, I mean she is in the middle of the process of destroying Germany with the migration.”
Much to the disappointment of Trump, Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis and Europe’s economic crisis — as well as her tough stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin — earned her the title of Time magazine’s person of the year in 2015.
However, her stance on the refugee crisis has received significant backlash from voters, weakening her standing at home and allowing for the first time in three terms the real possibility of defeat in the 2017 election. Kirchick noted to Yahoo News, “Really, for the first time since she’s been chancellor, there’s a serious question of whether or not she’ll be able to win again.”
Up until now, Merkel’s popularity made her one of the country’s longest-serving chancellors, outlasting previous European allies such as Tony Blair in the U.K. and Nicolas Sarkozy in France.
Over the years, she forged close relationships with her U.S. counterparts, presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. However, things got awkward with President Obama in 2013, when leaks from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. had been monitoring Merkel since 2002, including tapping her cell phone. Her response: “Spying among friends is never acceptable.”
But by the end of Obama’s tenure, the two world leaders had formed a bond. Kirchick said, “They had a very good relationship and I think even through the NSA scandal, because she respected Obama so much and he respected her; it could’ve been a lot worse if it had been another type of German politician who was involved in this.”
As Angela Merkel begins her visit to the U.S., when it comes to her power and influence in Europe and around the world, you can say, now I get it.