For decades, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has built a reputation for leadership on climate and other environmental issues, earning her the nickname “the Climate Chancellor.” Though a focus on climate science is nothing new for Merkel, recent shifts in global politics have left a void on the international political stage, with US has retreating from a leadership position and the UK beginning its exit from the European Union. Merkel is well positioned to step into this role.
The G20 summit, in Hamburg last week, was an opportunity for Merkel to embrace this new leadership role amid international discord. Merkel hosted and facilitated negotiations between leaders with increasingly disparate platforms. Ultimately, the 20 nations of the summit navigated through a deadlock to release a joint statement that acknowledged Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, while reaffirming the commitments of the 19 other nations. Though she did much of the work involved in bridging this gap, she also openly stated that she “deplored” Trump’s decision on the agreement. Given that Trump’s mind was already made up on the Paris accord, the outcome was largely seen as a win for Merkel.
Even Trump himself said to Merkel, “you have been amazing, and you have done a fantastic job. And thank you very much, Chancellor. Incredible.” The two even shook hands, after famously declining to do so during their first meeting at the White House.
In the coming months and years, she will likely find many more opportunities to keep the world on track to address global climate change, and to lead when it comes to free trade, human rights, and other increasingly contentious issues.
Merkel has been increasingly outspoken on these issues. In May, after NATO and G7 meetings, she frankly expressed her disappointment over the Trump administration’s positions, signaling a new era of division between Europe and the United States.
“The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over. This is what I experienced in the last few days,” Merkel said after early meetings with the American administration. “We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans,” she added.
Meanwhile, Europe is charting a new course without the UK, after last year’s Brexit vote.
In addition to their reversal of the US position on climate change, the Trump administration has also shifted away from the longstanding transatlantic consensus on collective defense through NATO, Russian aggression, global trade, and human rights.
Merkel will face parliamentary elections in September to determine whether she will remain as chancellor for a fourth term. Her decisive, and relatively uncompromising statements could indicate a willingness for Germany to take a new, more active role in European leadership. Whether German voters embrace that vision may play a role in the outcome of the election. Climate change is a key issue for many German voters, and Merkel’s strong credentials in this area have carried weight before.
According to Ivo H. Daalder, former envoy to NATO from the United States, now director of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:
“This seems to be the end of an era, one in which the United States led and Europe followed. Today, the United States is heading into a direction on key issues that seems diametrically opposite of where Europe is heading. Merkel’s comments are an acknowledgment of that new reality.”
“This is ‘America first’ — a policy focused on narrow self-interest — and abandons the idea that the best way to enhance our security and prosperity is by having strong allies and leading globally in pursuit of common values and interests.”
Merkel may be the perfect candidate to step up and fill the void. Climate change has been at the foundation of Merkel’s political career for decades. In 1997, she was in charge of negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first international climate treaty. In 1995, Merkel wrote that “greenhouse gas emissions do not only have to be stabilized, but have to be reduced as quickly as possible.” She was elected chancellor in 2005, and convinced G8 leaders to accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as the need for binding targets to reduce carbon emissions.
Climate change is not the only area in which Merkel could be prepared to lead the world. In response to Trump’s trade policies, which reverse decades of American policies on global free trade, Merkel said:
“Anybody who believes the problems of the world can be solved with isolationism and protectionism is laboring under a huge error.”
As other European nations and the US look towards tightening their borders, Germany has remained a beacon of hope for immigrants and refugees worldwide. Since 2015, more than one million refugees have entered Germany, which allows any Syrian refugees to enter the country, no matter which European country they first arrived in. In the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, Merkel has taken a bold and unequivocal stance in favor of human rights.
Merkel is well positioned to take a global leadership role when it comes to human rights and free trade. But its climate change, an issue that is increasingly accepted as dire by governments around the world, on which she has the strongest record. With rising sea levels and temperatures already taking a toll in places like the South Pacific, governments (with the notable exception of the United States) are taking climate change much more seriously. With the US no longer willing to cooperate on climate action, much less take the lead, Merkel’s Germany could be the best candidate for the role in these tumultuous times.