In the 90-plus years since Time magazine has been naming a “Person of the Year” on its cover, only four women have been featured: Wallis Simpson, Queen Elizabeth II, Corazon Aquino — and now, Angela Merkel. But even without the title conferred by the newsmagazine confirming it, and although Donald Trump wasted no time in taking to Twitter to express his disgruntlement, there can be little doubt that Merkel is indeed a person who “most influenced the news this year for better or worse”. The German chancellor was instrumental in the resolution, temporary though it may yet prove to be, of two grand crises — featuring Greece and refugees — that threatened the very idea of Europe.
For better or worse, Merkel played a pivotal role in the biggest stories of the past year, whether it was sabre-rattling with Russia over Ukraine, the game of economic brinkmanship with Greece, the refugee crisis unfolding on Europe’s shores or anti-Islamic State airstrikes in the aftermath of Paris. In debt-relief negotiations with Greece, she held the line until the latter’s radical-left government capitulated to German terms and conditions, establishing Germany as Europe’s pre-eminent economic policymaker. Then, in an act of political courage, she took the lead in opening German borders to the thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, making Germany a moral leader on an issue that brought out the parochial instincts of top European leadership — see, for instance, the toxic views promoted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Merkel has paid a political price for this policy, but has managed to contain the backlash. Her recent decision to commit German military forces to the anti-IS coalition is an important departure for a nation that has shied away from military conflict after World War II.
In each case, Merkel has stepped up and taken the risk, despite challenges to her stewardship. In doing so, she has cemented Germany’s position as the European Union’s indispensable nation. Most importantly, she has proven to be a capable custodian of the idea of Europe.