It was Monday 13 July 2015 and dawn had broken when Angela Merkel said it was all over: Greece would be leaving the eurozone. After 15 hours of all-nightcrisis talks, it looked like disaster. Merkel gathered her papers and was heading towards the door. If the summit had ended at that moment the history of the European Union, its fragile currency and Merkel’s legacy would be very different.
But the drama took another turn. Donald Tusk blocked the exit. Throughout the night, the French president, François Hollande, had been cajoling the German chancellor to think again. Now Tusk, European Council president, refused to let her leave, persuading her to reconvene with him and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, warning of the stakes for the EU. “In five years in the discussions between Hollande and Merkel it was a unique occasion in which Hollande really won the battle with Merkel,” Pierre Sellal, then France’s ambassador to the EU, said. Hollande helped convince Merkel not to run the risk of ‘Grexit’, suggested Sellal: “It was Pandora’s box, the consequences of which were impossible to predict.”
Six years on it is Merkel, not Tusk nor Hollande, who is remembered as the saviour of the euro. Even arch critic Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, told the BBC that Merkel saved the euro by keeping Greece in, although he disagrees with how she did it. The reason is simple: Greece could not have stayed in the eurozone if its largest EU creditor, Germany had not agreed.
Now, after 16 years and roughly 100 EU summits as Europe’s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel is preparing to leave the stage. For the EU it will be the end of an era. With her bright blazers and soundbite-free statements, Merkel is as much a fixture of EU summits as the flags and fine wines. Untouched by scandal, unshaken by referendums, the German chancellor has seen many leaders come and go, including four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers.
But she leaves a double-edged legacy. Though she is credited with keeping the EU together during more than a decade of rolling crises – eurozone, migration, Brexit, Trump and then coronavirus – critics lament what they see as her lack of vision. For some, her approach was auf Sicht fahren – driving by sight. She navigated each crisis like a driver on a foggy road, edging forward, not sure where she was going, but always keeping the car on the road.