Even though Merkel will be around until German parties can hammer out a new government, this week's two-day meeting of E.U. leaders was likely her last: the closing act in an extraordinary run as head of the bloc's largest economy and a powerful force on the European Council, composed of the 27 member states' political leaders.
Presidents and prime ministers broke from discussions of migration and trade to shower the retiring Merkel with praise.
Other long-serving leaders have come and gone — among them her onetime mentor Helmut Kohl, French presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But Merkel’s exit has received outsize attention because she was widely seen as a beacon of stability and unity through particularly tumultuous times, including fiscal crises, deep disputes over immigration, and Britain’s break from the bloc.
“You are a monument,” European Council President Charles Michel told her in an informal closed-door ceremony, according to an E.U. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the event. “Comparisons come to mind. The European Council without Angela is like Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”
Michel even called in Merkel’s “BFF,” former president Barack Obama, who delivered a video address to mark the moment, commending the German chancellor’s navigation through successive upheavals.
“Thanks to you, the center has held through many storms,” Obama said. “So many people, girls and boys, men and women, have had a role model who they could look up to through challenging times. I know because I am one of them.”
The high-level council confabs, more than anywhere else, are where Merkel forged her legacy, earning a reputation for tireless negotiating and a relentless pursuit of compromise.
In that sense, Friday was a fitting finish.
The summit’s first day had been dominated by debate over how the European Union should respond to democratic backsliding in Poland. While some leaders wanted to push for the most significant financial sanctions possible, Merkel called repeatedly for more dialogue. In the end, the group discussed the issue for two hours but made no decisions.
A parade of leaders arriving at the ornate Europa Building in Brussels applauded their outgoing colleague.
“Frau Merkel was a compromise machine,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who said she “will leave a big gap” at the helm of Europe.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called Merkel “the stabilizing factor, which was crucially needed, especially in very complicated circumstances.”
“In critical moments, Angela was that lady, that madam who intervened and helped us find a solution,” Nauseda said.
But Merkel’s critics have, at times, faulted her for her incremental approach, saying she has delayed decisions at the E.U. level in an effort to preserve consensus and avoid infighting. That cautious approach, some say, allowed for the erosion of democratic norms in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere.
Her tactics even earned their own verb: “Merkeln,” meaning to dither or bide one’s time.
Merkel, the E.U.’s longest-tenured leader, faced a string of pressing challenges during her time in office.
Amid the euro-zone debt crisis, she spent long days and late nights haggling over solutions, brokering a hard-line agreement in 2015 to bail out Greece, which was then on the brink of leaving the euro zone.
And soon after, she led intense negotiations with the Turkish government, helping to seal a deal that saw Ankara curb the flow of refugees into the European Union, a defining point in Merkel’s chancellorship.
But there were also some light moments.
In 2016, during marathon Brexit negotiations, Merkel left the meetings with her staff to visit Maison Antoine, a famous frites shop in the Belgian capital.
A diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to crack a joke about the powerful leader, said Merkel was often the best-protected European leader when she was working in Brussels.
“If you see a helicopter above your head on a summit day, you will probably see Angela Merkel very soon,” the diplomat said.
The European Council meeting was just the beginning of Merkel’s goodbye tour of international summits, which will continue this month at the Group of 20 gathering in Rome. Merkel will then convene with many of the same leaders and former allies, including Obama, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in November.
The E.U. leaders are scheduled to meet again Dec. 16. By then, it is possible that Olaf Scholz, whose party topped September elections, will be Germany’s new chancellor and Merkel’s replacement on the council. Otherwise, Merkel may return for an encore.