Back in July, Angela Merkel seemed to find herself not quite knowing what to say.
In a videotaped debate with a group of young people, a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee told the German chancellor, in fluent German, that she wanted to study at a university but feared being deported from the country. Merkel was sympathetic to her, but the girl broke down in tears after Merkel said, "If we now say 'you can all come, you can all come here from Africa, you can all come,' we just can't manage that," adding "some will need to go back." Merkel tried to console her, stroking her back, but the filmed encounter sparked outrage among many who saw her response as coldhearted.
Less than two months later, the German leader is getting raves for her moral leadership regarding the refugee crisis. She is being called "Europe's conscience" not only for her country's willingness to take in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, but for stepping up to push for a Europe-wide response to the crisis.
Merkel has denounced xenophobic protests over the refugees, saying, "there is no tolerance toward those who question the dignity of other people." Migrants pose for her with selfies and express their appreciation in images shared on social media. Refugees are calling her "Mama Merkel" and naming their babies after her.
Sympathy to refugees is not new for the German leader, however some may have interpreted her comments to the Palestinian girl as harsh or seen her overall response as slow. Laws over the course of her government, reports say, have gradually changed to be more accommodating to asylum seekers, and her government has underscored the need to welcome refugees.
And yet recent comments by Merkel and moves by her government to lead on the refugee crisis have some seeing a new leadership style for the German chancellor, at least on the current crisis. A leader criticized during the Greek debt crisis for trying to keep her options open and being unwilling to take unpopular stands, she's now being hailed as "Merkel the bold."
"Few other European politicians have had the courage to make such a clear link between Europe’s values, its collective self-interest and bold action on refugees," The Economist recently wrote of Merkel's leadership, calling it a "shining exception."
Over the years, Merkel's name has become synonymous, domestically, for a cautious and even vague style of politics. (Quite literally: the word "Merkeln," which means, according to a German dictionary publisher, "to do nothing, make no decisions, issue no statements" is in the running for "Youth Word of the Year" in Germany.) But now she and her government are speaking out clearly on what Germany can do and Europe needs to do to address the refugee crisis.
In August, her government suspended the Dublin procedure for Syrians, a rule that said anyone seeking asylum in the European Union has to apply in the first country they enter. That should make it easier for Syrians to stay in Germany, as well as relieve some of the pressure on countries like Greece and Italy, where migrants often arrive first. Her government has said it "can cope" with as many as 500,000 asylum seekers a year for several years, far more than neighboring European countries. She supports a European Union proposal to redistribute asylum seekers across Europe but has said it does not go far enough.
And though many in Germany thought she waited too long to speak out about violent protests in front of a shelter for refugees in the town of Heidenau—the hashtags #Merkelschweight ("Merkel is silent") and #Merkelsagwas ("Merkel, say something") have trended on Twitter—she did eventually find her voice. During a visit to the shelter, where she was booed by far-right protestors who called her a "traitor," she called the violence "shameful and appalling."
"It is repulsive how far-right extremists and neo-Nazis are trying to herald dumb messages of hate," she said separately. "At the same time, it is shameful how citizens, even families with kids, are supporting these things by tagging along. . . . Germany is a country which respects the dignity of every single individual."
Finally, she's spoken strongly about how critical it is for Europe to get its solution right. By warning that the current refugee crisis would "preoccupy Europe much, much more than the issue of Greece and the stability of the euro," she is putting things into perspective. It was a reminder of how momentous this challenge really is—not only for the many lives at stake, but for the very concept of the EU itself. "If Europe fails on the question of refugees,” she has said, “it won’t be the Europe we wished for."
Merkel's bolder, braver style of handling the migrant crisis may be rooted in both history and pragmatism. With an aging population and a rich economy, Germany needs an influx of migrants to help fill jobs. Still, her approach is both striking and commendable, not only for how it compares to the more cautious style she is known for, but for how boldly it stands in contrast to other leaders in Europe.