A letter to the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee
In 2018 I wrote a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee, a personal tribute to Angela Merkel. I met her once in her office in Berlin. She is not someone I know well, not what one can consider a friend. I actually didn’t say kind words about her during the worst months of the world financial crisis of 2008-2009 when Germany imposed extreme austerity measures on my Portuguese, Greek and Irish friends. So my deposition to the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee was one that could be considered objective, unbiased. A clarification: for this submission, I was greatly helped by a very refined German nobleman, a highly respected professor of economics. He didn’t want his name mentioned such was his virtue of humility. I continue to respect his wishes.
Much esteemed Members of the Nobel Peace Committee,
In 1996 you awarded Bishop Carlos Filipe X. BELO and my irrelevant self the Nobel Peace Prize; this contributed decisively to a mediated resolution of the conflict and Timor-Leste was finally liberated after 24 years. Today, you would be pleased to know, US Freedom House ranks Timor-Leste as the freest and most democratic country in Southeast Asia.
I am writing to you today not to report on my accomplishments and failures, virtues and sins, but rather I am writing to you about a great European leader, the greatest in many many years – Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Federal Republic of Germany.
This is not a letter nominating Chancellor Merkel for the Nobel Peace Prize 2018. I know the deadline has long passed. I believe others have nominated Chancellor Merkel for the world’s most coveted Peace Prize.
This letter is an appeal to you, esteemed Members of the Nobel Peace Committee, to reflect on the extraordinary challenges Europe and our world are facing – the existential threats to the post-World War Institutions conceived by men and women of vision; and reflect on the exceptional leadership of this extraordinary woman, from former East Germany.
In the aftermath of the nightmare and abominable crimes perpetrated by the III Reich, European leaders with a shared experience of that gravest humanity’s tragedy, believed that institutions had to be created to safeguard free and open societies.
This thinking was and is informed by the notion that peace was and is more than just the absence of war. Just as the great thinkers of modern statehood argued, liberty and peace have to be cultivated continuously. Hence, it is a State responsibility, as well as it is the duty of every citizen to contribute towards establishing and upholding a culture of peace.
Alfred Nobel understood the functioning of modern societies better than most of his contemporaries. The establishment of the foundation and the endowment of the Nobel Prizes aimed to contribute to the benign evolution of modern societies, hence the award for outstanding achievements in sciences, literature and for peace to „the greatest benefit on mankind.“
State-building in post-World War II meant investing in institutional structures guaranteeing individual freedoms and peace. Steadily a web of regional and multilateral institutions was developed in order to restrain power.
After a period of inhumanity, human dignity lies at the core of these institutional and normative frameworks. Preserving it is the ultimate objective of the nation-state and the international community.
Human rights bills in almost all constitutions and both on the European and international levels (ECHR and UDHR) attest to this endeavor. It is fair to say that preserving human dignity, serving humankind and, in order to fulfill this task, shaping both national and international institutional systems have always been central to Angela Merkel‘s life.
Growing up under an inhumane dictatorship, Angela Merkel embraced the notion of human dignity as both founding principle and pillar of all polities. She was convinced that institutions have to be designed and cultivated in order to pursue this objective. This entails the necessity to revisit existing institutions and adjust them accordingly. Thus, Angela Merkel became not only a champion of the post-war liberal order but also of the need to adapt it according to evolving circumstances while staying true to its roots.
Institutions never serve themselves, but they are to serve humans and the common good. So they have to be adapted to serve as effectively as possible.
Angela Merkel was shaped both by being raised in a protestant vicarage and by her studies in natural sciences. Having grown up in the GDR, she became active in civil society around the fall of the Iron Curtain, getting engaged in politics rather by chance than by design.
The protestant heritage presents itself in her humility, in a sense of duty and in absolute incorruptibility. This entails a level of self-reflection that stands out among her peers. Her confirmation verse, which she had selected herself, is “And now faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13: 13). Charity, the love of others, realizes the principle of human dignity in action. She has often stated that this verse has guided her throughout her life.
As a scientist, Angela Merkel has shown an analytical and critical approach to issues at hand, profound skepticism towards ideologies and, hence, the willingness to adapt her positions when circumstances change. Again, while ideologies focus on principles over people, such an approach is centered on serving humanity. Her approach can also be coined as a process of learning. Realizing that human knowledge is limited, drafting public policy requires humility. Statecraft is not about perfectibility, but it is the art of the possible and requires constant adaption. Policies should not only prove effective but also legitimate, being supported by a broad, non-partisan consensus in society.
Chancellor Merkel is a rare breed of public servants, being unpretentious and listening to scientific and economic advice. With this approach, she has not only managed to cope in a period of manifold crises, but she has also served as an inspiration for moderates trying to build common ground in an age of increasing polarization. In a career spanning over almost 30 years in various responsibilities, Chancellor Merkel has accomplished many remarkable feats.
There are three major guidelines: human dignity, societal integration and solving paramount challenges.
During her time as a (rather junior) Minister for Women and Youth in Chancellor Helmut Kohl‘s Cabinet (1990-1994), Angela Merkel enjoyed little leeway to shape policies. However, she did accomplish major breakthroughs, e.g. sponsoring legislation allowing for the entitlement for a place in nursery school. Major legislation to foster gender equality passed in 1994. She also supported a bill balancing pro-life and women‘s rights positions on abortion. This was not only a highly contested issue between conservatives and liberals but required a solution balancing existing legislation in the former FRG and GDR. Her position “to help, not to punish” women was opposed by the conservative base of her own party. Though the bill she sponsored fell through, it is quite similar to the subsequent ruling of the Constitutional Court, which has settled the issue and pacified the cleavages.
This is just one example of policies that are centered on the common good, not on ideologies, breaking with dogmas of her own party. As Chancellor, Angela Merkel fostered legislation allowing young mothers to balance work and child-bearing. She also tacitly supported the bill introducing same-sex marriage. Although she objected to the bill herself and didn‘t vote for it in the Bundestag, she realized that the population supported it broadly and therefore paved the way for getting it passed. Same-sex couples now enjoy pretty much equal rights.
When Angela Merkel was elected Chancellor, she benefitted from the economic boom, partly due to her predecessor’s reform agenda. However, with her own focus on education and research, she set a new agenda for Germany’s economy in the digital age and opening opportunities for younger generations. Part of her portfolio as Minister for Environment (1994-1998) was climate change. Having been in charge for about half a year, she hosted the UN Climate Change Conference in Berlin in April 1995.
Having been elected Chancellor in 2005, climate change has remained on top of her agenda, as for example, the G8 summit in Heiligendamm 2007 gives testimony. Merkel invested significant political capital in the preparation of the summit, carefully managing expectations. Not just was she more familiar with the policies and their context than her peers, empathy and persuasion led to successful negotiations.
The exit from nuclear and fossil fuel energy sets an ambitious agenda for Germany as a leading industrial country aims at relying mainly on renewable energy. While the verdict is still out regarding both effectiveness and efficiency, Germany still serves as a role model for other countries.
Public perception often describes Chancellor Merkel as a sensible manager in times of crisis. Her approach is often being described as scientific for her calm leadership which has gained trust from both her peers and the people. She has been widely credited for tirelessly searching for solutions instead of exploiting crises for political profit. This holds particularly true in the context of the European Union. Having inherited a constitutional crisis after the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty, she played an instrumental role in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Lisbon.
And even those opposing her premises give testimony that Merkel managed the Eurozone crisis, which posed (and still poses) the greatest challenge to European integration, competently.
At first, Europe turned away as it was faced with the forced migration of millions in the wake of the uprisings in the MENA countries. Lampedusa was perceived as an Italian, not a European problem. Chancellor Merkel, however, realized that in the summer of 2015 the humanitarian situation of hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in Europe would not resolve on its own and simply evaporate. Doing nothing or pursuing a piecemeal approach was not an option.
When Merkel announced that refugees could enter Germany, even when, according to EU legislation, they had to apply for asylum in other countries, her decision was driven by humanitarian and strategic motives. Strategically, it borrowed time for a joint European solution on how to deal with forced migration. However, it also appears as driven by charity, particularly being compared with the cynical stance of other European governments.
It was a very courageous decision, especially as it required improvisation and measures beyond the courant normale. In essence, she was willing to risk her own power, if this was the price to pay. She realized that the root causes leading to (forced) migration had to be addressed. Germany has taken the lead to provide education in MENA countries in order to offer perspectives to youth. Within G7, she started developing such an agenda for Africa.
Under Chancellor Merkel‘s leadership, Germany has developed policies that are both realist and reflective. Merkel followed the tradition of her predecessors that due to its history, Germany is constrained in its ambitions when it comes to projecting power. Germany had to follow a multilateral agenda in order to regain sovereignty and it has followed this path to become a trusted actor in both Europe and the world. The country has gained from this approach, but it has always shouldered its share of the burden, often more than this.
Chancellor Merkel is a champion for open societies and multilateral governance. Given her own humility she would probably appreciate being called a „leader of the free world“, but she would not claim it. As proven time and again, she approaches challenges in a pragmatic, not dogmatic manner, based on values, not on ideologies; to build, not to burn bridges; constructively seeking solutions that serve common purposes, not simply and coldly maximizing own interests.
Of course, she is not infallible (only President Trump is apparently infallible), and her willingness to listen and learn allows her to adapt and change course if necessary. Having been challenged by unprecedented levels of complexity and interdependence, this is an extraordinary feat.
History shows us that strong democratic institutions are necessary to prevent the abuse of power and to serve the common good. In times when some world leaders seemed bent on disassembling these well-tested institutions, Chancellor Merkel has championed them in Germany, Europe, and beyond.
And quite in contrast to some of her peers, she continues to pursue a style coined by civility and fairness, even if interests diverge. She has always strived for serving the common good. Power has not blurred her view of the human being as the source and the centre of all political action. It may be tragic, in the very sense of the word, that she might only be fully appreciated, once she has left the stage. However, the substance of her achievements is obvious.
The much esteemed and respected Nobel Peace Committee Members might wonder why would someone from a far distant land worry about Germany, Europe and the world?
From the edge of the world, I observe with profound concern the extraordinary challenges our world faces. And we, small, impoverished, fragile and vulnerable communities at the edges of the world, suffer many times more the consequences of policies and actions (or lack of) undertaken by the larger powers.
You rightly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union in 2010. I applauded it. It has not prevented the EU from going from the 2008-2009 financial meltdown to BREXIT and increasing divisions in the Union.
Angela Merkel has been the wisest and most compassionate Leader of Europe and one of the most respected in the world. And Angela Merkel has been in my view the single greatest force holding off the relentless assault on Europe’s democracy.
You do understand the weight of the Nobel Peace Prize in educating and mobilizing world public opinion towards dialogue, solidarity, peace and democracy.
Decades of social and democracy progress in Europe and decades of multilateralism are being challenged by the extremists on the two sides of the Atlantic.
As of 2017, 844 men and 48 women have received the Nobel Prize. In my counting, only 4 (four) European women have received the Peace Prize in the entire history of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The year 2018 should be the year of an outstanding European woman being duly honored with the Nobel Peace Prize – Angela Merkel.