Let me start this blog with a confession: I would never have considered voting for Angela Merkel – but then in any case, voting for her was not on offer, as in Germany one does not vote for personalities but parties and their respective lists.
And I certainly would never have voted for her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), even if it is miles away from the elitist conservatism of the British Tory party and its ideological project of subsidies for second homes for the rich and destitution for the poor, combined with increasing hostility towards refugees whom it calls ‘economic migrants’ for the most part.
And if not so long ago somebody had asked my opinion about what I thought about Angela Merkel winning the Nobel Peace Prize I would have laughed it off as a joke. Well, not any longer, or at least not since I listened to her in the popular political talk show Anne Will, where she sat for one hour in the interviewee’s chair and had everything and a kitchen sink thrown at her in relation to possible critiques of German policies towards refugees.
The critiques, and that is probably the most astonishing, came not because Germany like many other nations tries to close its borders and keep everybody out – but because Angela Merkel is almost the only major European leader who says: Let them come – and we will manage – ‘wir schaffen das’ is the slogan she repeats until everybody seems to believes it (and, to be fair, she does also offer very detailed ideas on how that positive outcome will come about).
She might have alienated large sections of her own party, and, if one believes opinion polls, increasing sections of the German population, and it might cost her the chancellorship in the future, but she is steadfast in what she firmly believes is the right thing to do – and with unlimited amounts of energy, so it seems, explains it patiently to everybody. How has it happened that a conservative German chancellor is the last hope for the survival of European values of hospitality and compassion? Of course when looking at details one might regard some of the concrete measures German policy proposes as problematic, but let’s not be mistaken: she is the only leader to speak out on her beliefs and values – and that it might yet cost her the job does not concern her, or even crosses her mind, so it seems. She really does believe Germany can actually do this, can overcome the doubters and those who actively oppose her, and can also take the rest of Europe with it.
When she says she does not want to enter a contest of who is the most unwelcoming to refugees so they do not come – one just has to agree with her. And the radiant optimism she exposes – a chancellor who was always accused of ‘sitting things out’ not having clear opinions but following the stream of majority arguments instead of taking an active leadership role, not least in relation to the Greek economic crisis, has become one of the few symbols of hope for the survival of the European project as based on certain ethics and values. The selfies some refugees took with her earlier in the summer, and for which she was heavily critiqued, are a powerful symbol of this. So is this really about her, in the way that one of my colleagues has argued the response to the refugee crisis is more about ‘us’ than ‘them’? Far from it, and Angela Merkel is in essence a very private person who is not entirely comfortable in any sort of limelight.
Should she win the Nobel Peace prize then? When asked by Anne Will she brushed the idea away, saying she really had other concerns – and one does believe her. Somehow, in the current crisis she found the courage to make a clear link between Europe’s values, its collective self-interest and bold action on refugees in what The Economist called a “shining exception.”
Other major candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize include the Pope and Mussie Zerai, perhaps one of the least known candidates. He is an Eritrean priest who not only set up a hotline for refugees on leaky boats from North Africa to Europe, but more generally became an advocate for refugees across Europe in the face of increasing hostility.
If Mussie Zerai and Angela Merkel were to win the prize together, this would not be a bad judgement at all. And nobody is perhaps more surprised than I am myself about having written this last sentence.