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Angela Merkel is increasingly referred to as the 'leader of the free world.' Yet it is a title she herself does not want. She is not defined by her aspirations, but rather by her pragmatism, says Kay-Alexander Scholz.
The best remedy for populism and oversimplification in politics is to keep a level head and not fall into the trap of emotion. Pragmatism guards against ideology, and public humility against the dangers of political showmanship. That has been Angela Merkel's political trademark.
Theresa May has just been painfully reminded of what can happen if one bites off more than one can chew and at the same time misjudges the political climate. In contrast, Merkel, after two surprise regional election victories, has warned that federal elections have yet to be won. Chancellor Merkel's motto has always been: Keep your feet on the ground. That, despite the fact that she would seem to have every reason to celebrate: Her challenger, Martin Schulz, has tripped over his own cocky behavior and his Social Democratic Party's surprising surge earlier this year has already faded. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has also been taken down a notch, putting it back where it belongs in the polls. Still, there are three months before federal elections and anything can happen.
Chancellor in her twelfth year
Nevertheless, anyone who thinks that Angela Merkel is not pursuing ambitious goals is fooling themselves. Merkel just happens to appear more low-key and often remains vague in her statements. Her comments that Europe has to be more self-reliant and less dependent on help from its transatlantic partner, the United States, is typical Merkel. Behind the statement is the calculus that the current Trump disaster will put wind in the sails for a new level of European Union cooperation. As that will not be easy, it is smarter to work slow and steady on the project rather than trying to hammer it out all at once.
Merkel has been managing major European crises for years – Greece, the Euro, Ukraine and refugees. Germany was in a position of leadership in all of those instances because other countries, or even the EU, were doing too little. Merkel was forced to learn a number of lessons throughout. For instance, that one simply cannot convince the neighbors or the EU with a know-it-all approach. And that one should not overestimate one's own abilities. When that happens – as was the case in the refugee crisis – other countries back away and Europe begins to drift apart. Yet, a lesson learned is a lesson learned.
Enough to do in Europe
It seems as if Angela Merkel has been chancellor forever. If she ever pens an autobiography she will be able to write anecdotes about dozens of European politicians. In the end, she has consolidated a great amount of power not only in Germany but also in Europe.
Still, it is extremely unlikely that she plans to position herself as the leader of the free world as so many pundits have claimed. Merkel knows full well that she would be woefully overplaying her political hand should she ever act on such impulses. Especially because she has enough to do here in "little" old Europe. The fact that Germany is a global economic power will do nothing to change that.
But part of her responsibilities in Europe dictate that she keep a close eye on other regions. Germany is intent upon fighting the causes of migration at the source, and has therefore introduced initiatives to address such problems in regions like Africa. However, as stated, such initiatives have less to do with global politics than with the primary desire to reduce migratory pressure on Europe.
Preparing for the G20 summit in July
Some commentators are putting far too much stock in the chancellor's current Latin America trip to G20 states Argentina and Mexico. Is Merkel forging a new global alliance? Those who recall the fact that the trip was planned long ago, and is in no way a knee-jerk reaction to the policies of the Trump administration, will quickly realize that this is not the case. Furthermore, Germany currently heads the G20, and will be handing over its chairmanship to Argentina next year. In order to facilitate more continuity in dealing with longterm issues, the German government has spoken of a leadership troika comprised of the former (China), current (Germany) and future (Argentina) chairs.
Mexico is also a member of the G20, which was created in 1999 and held its first leaders' summit in 2008. Mexico is an important trading partner for Germany and will be the featured partner country at Germany's important Hanover Trade Fair in 2018. That is also why Merkel is being accompanied by an economic delegation on the trip.
Moreover, this July's G20 summit will take place in Hamburg. Thus, it makes sense that as host, Merkel is interested in clarifying positions. Of course, free trade is a priority. Nevertheless, Germany is not the Mercosur countries' trading partner when it comes to free trade agreements, the European Union is. But it is also clear that if an international event such as the G20 is successful, the chancellor will have been effectively campaigning for herself. Merkel would not be Merkel if she were not acutely aware of that fact, and did not know how to use it to her advantage as an incumbent.
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the G20 was founded in 2008, not in 1999. This has been corrected.