Merkel’s exit message for the world

As she ends 16 years as chancellor, she worries most about losing history’s lessons about “acting in a purely national way.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens during the opening ceremony of the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 1.

At what may have been her last appearance on the world stage, Angela Merkel, Germany’s departing leader, spoke Monday at the opening of the United Nations conference on climate change. She knows the topic well. At the first climate conference in 1995, she was a young politician serving as environment minister and head of the meeting in Berlin.

Yet in her final interviews with journalists after 16 years as chancellor, Ms. Merkel isn’t worried most about climate change. Rather she advises people to remember the historical reasons for the multilateral institutions set up in the 20th century, such as the European Union, and not succumb to the “false temptation of acting in a purely national way.”

“We have to remind ourselves that the multilateral world order was created as a lesson from the Second World War” with its roots in supernationalism, she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

In other words, solving cross-border problems such as global warming, mass migration, and illegal flows of money requires each country to balance domestic politics with a greater view of humanity.

“I have resolutely advocated multilateralism, for well-functioning international organizations, time and again for the search for common solutions instead of national solo efforts,” she told Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Europe’s grand experiment at economic and political union has been her main concern as the Continent’s de facto leader. She has had to work hard to keep the EU intact during Britain’s exit as a member and a resurgence of anti-EU nationalism in Poland and Hungary.

“After the great joy of the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Europe, we have to take care now not to enter a historical phase in which important lessons from history fade away,” she says.

As a club of 27 nations, the EU offered a bold step in July to curb a tendency by many nations to keep emitting carbon. It announced plans for a tax by 2023 on imported goods based on the carbon emissions incurred in their production. It remains to be seen whether the EU, as a large regional economy, has the clout to shape international energy behavior with such a levy.

The bigger point of the plan is that countries must give up some narrow interests for a global cause. Ms. Merkel has fought that battle over nationalism within the EU. At the 197-nation climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, she again tried to elevate the discussion. Her parting advice: Recall history’s lessons that nationalism cannot come at a cost to humanity at large.

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