Europe should listen to Angela Merkel on Ukraine

The former German chancellor is making the case for diplomacy from a position of expertise and experience

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from journalist and author Alexander Osang under the theme "So what is my country?" at the Berliner Ensemble in Berlin. AP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the most consequential European politicians of the 21st century. She steered Germany and, in large part, the EU through the turbulence of the 2008 financial crisis, the 2015 refugee crisis and Brexit.

The evolution of her career is also symbolic of headwinds of progress greater than herself. She was Germany's first female chancellor and its second-longest-serving one. Her political career began in 1990, just a year after the wall dividing East and West Germany came down. She grew up in the less prosperous, far more repressive eastern part of the country, making her chancellorship as representative as it was successful.

But with the war in Ukraine – which began just two months after she left office – that legacy has come under a great deal of criticism from some in the West, who believe it to have been naive and strategically disastrous. Supply fears sparked by much of the continent's reliance on Russian gas have caused criticism of her approach to grow louder.

It had been made worse by her silence on the issue. That changed on Tuesday, when she conducted her first interview since the beginning of the war. Her responses were firm. She called called Russia's invasion "not just unacceptable but also a major mistake". She also clearly stated she would offer no apologies for her pre-war approach to Russia: “It’s a great shame that it didn’t succeed, but I don’t blame myself for having tried ... I don't see that I should now say it was wrong, and I won't apologise."

There are very few people as qualified as her in Russia-West relations. Ms Merkel is a Russian-speaker and also knowledgeable about Ukrainian affairs, particularly regarding its historic relations with Nato.

While there are no easy options going forward, her defence of negotiation and diplomacy is entirely legitimate and held by much of the world. A month after the invasion, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-Operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed emphasised the need for a diplomatic solution in a visit to Moscow. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the head of the African Union as the bloc tried to raise awareness of the significant danger that a food crisis aggravated by the conflict poses to the continent. Its chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat, emphasised the need for a swift and peaceful resolution.

Even some European nations appear to tend towards moderation on occasion. French President Emmanuel Macron has drawn criticism from more hawkish voices in the west for his comments on the importance of not "humiliating" Russia.

Peace is obviously most important for Ukraine. But so is it for neighbouring countries dealing with a massive refugee crisis. And as the months go by, so is it for the entire world. This week, the World Bank slashed its growth forecast for the global economy for the second time this year.

Germany and other European nations that are perhaps more inclined than most towards diplomacy are still far from advocating a pacifist approach. Berlin has announced a historic increase in its defence spending and only this Tuesday said it is ready to strengthen its military presence on Nato’s eastern flank. Recent scenes from the UN show how distant constructive negotiations are. On Tuesday, Russia's UN envoy Vassily Nebenzia angrily exited the UN Security Council after EU officials accused Moscow of worsening the global food crisis. Russia has also blamed the west after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had to cancel a trip to Serbia when neighbouring countries closed their airspace to his plane.

But as the war rages on, Europe must not forget voices such as Ms Merkel's and the need for diplomacy. First and foremost, it must do this for its own sake. Increasingly, it must also do so for the sake of the rest of the world.

Published: June 09, 2022, 3:00 AM