Merkel as ‘mother’ to a European conscience

German leader Angela Merkel keeps rising in moral authority with each new crisis: Greece, Ukraine, and now a flood of refugees. Ever mindful of its nationalist past, Germany finds a role in uniting Europe around universal values.

A migrant holds a banner reading "Mama Merkel help us" in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, Sept.15. Hungary's right-wing government shut the main land route for migrants into the European Union on Tuesday, taking matters into its own hands to halt Europe's influx of refugees.

Perhaps not by her own design, German leader Angela Merkel has become a global figure since 2010 as a result of a string of crises in Europe. Along the way this daughter of a Lutheran pastor has been called many things: the Iron Chancellor, the most powerful woman in the world, a reluctant mediator, and an incremental pragmatist. 

But never “Mother Merkel.”

That’s the name chanted by many Syrian refugees in recent weeks as they trekked toward a Germany that has offered an openhearted welcome and some hope of asylum for those fleeing conflict areas.

During the refugee crisis, Ms. Merkel’s leadership within the European Union has further elevated Germany from its traditional role as the main manager of Europe to being its conscience. A good example is her gentle cajoling of other countries to accept a fair quota of refugees, even as Germany expects to take in 800,000 asylum seekers this year.

“It’s not likely we’ll achieve a European solution by saying no,” she said. “If we are courageous and enterprising, we’ll get a solution.”

Even a onetime critic, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, wrote in a German newspaper that “Europe needs the moral leadership of Germany.” And former World Bank President Robert Zoellick goes so far as to say that Germany is “on the frontier of contending ideas about the future of the world.”

While she can wield power like any politician, often putting her own country’s interests first, Merkel has shown a boldness in asserting that the EU represents a set of ideals. During the showdown with Russia over its threat to Ukraine in 2014, she was steely with President Vladimir Putin about not using violence to change national borders and was able to achieve a cease-fire. During the crisis over the future of the euro, triggered by Greece, she took a hard line against the dishonesty, deception, and profligacy of Greek leaders in demanding reforms in exchange for financial bailouts.

But during the refugee crisis, she really has stood strong by denouncing racial and religious intolerance. “The world is watching us,” she said. “If Europe fails on the refugee question, its close bond with universal human rights will be destroyed, and it will no longer be the Europe we dreamed of.”

This is a useful reminder for Eastern European nations that only recently joined the EU and mostly for its economic benefits, such as free trade and EU subsidies. Her rhetoric and actions may also help Germany deal with Britain’s possible exit from the EU. A referendum on that question is due by the end of 2017.

Merkel might even use Germany’s new moral authority to help solve the Syrian war in order to stanch the flow of refugees. She already played a role in arranging the recent Iran nuclear deal.

In a speech last year, President Joachim Gauck, whose position is largely ceremonial, startled many Germans by asking them not to turn a blind eye to global threats but stand firm for universal values. “Let us be seen to be living by them. Let us defend them,” he said.

Ever mindful of its wartime past, Germany may now be showing that the exercise of power in today’s shrinking world lies less in military might than in moral example. It did not choose the trials over Ukraine, Greece, or Syrian refugees. But Germany certainly has responded with the right leadership.

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