Odds on who’s going to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to be awarded on Friday, are so hard to make that one could easily arbitrage various bookmakers. I’m not a betting man, but I hope the prize goes to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She’s the favorite now with average odds of about 6/1, and she deserves to win.
The field is strong. It includes Pope Francis, who this year helped restore relations between the U.S. and Cuba; the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which did a great job covering Russia’s hybrid war in eastern Ukraine; and Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege, who helps women gang-raped in the course of his country’s civil war. Other contenders are Mussie Zerai, the Eritrean priest who helps save refugees in the Mediterranean by taking their coordinates by satellite phone and passing the information on to the European naval rescue units; and the Japanese pacifists who want to preserve Article 9 of the country’s constitution, which declares Japan demilitarized.
Yet I would argue that no one has done as much as Merkel this year for peace, and for people fleeing war.
The German chancellor has faced at least three issues this year which could have serious consequences for the global order: Putin’s attack on Ukraine; the refugee crisis stemming from the Syrian war; and the Greek crisis, which threatened to undermine the euro area and the European Union itself – an organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for its “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” In none of these cases did she take the easy path, and in all her stand was logical and principled, though each of the solutions she advocated got plenty of flak.
In handling the Ukrainian crisis, Merkel broke with Germany’s tradition of maintaining a warm and businesslike relationship with Russia, pushing for sanctions against Putin to match the U.S. restrictions, though the economic fallout for Germany was far more serious than for the U.S. Merkel knew the sanctions would have little immediate effect. Last year, she recalled that it took 40 years for economic pressure to bring down the East German regime. So she maintained a relationship with Putin, serving as his main Western interlocutor at a time when other Western leaders gave up.
Grimly, she listened to him dissembling and looked for an opening to pull him toward a compromise. Few people believed that the Minsk cease-fire, engineered by Merkel and French President Francois Hollande last February and amended last week in Paris, would stop the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but it has: People are no longer dying there, though a political solution still hasn’t been reached. In the face of a new threat, Merkel maintained solidarity with the U.S. and Ukraine, and yet kept the channels open.
Merkel is likely to be most remembered for her treatment of the refugee crisis. The chancellor decided to bend European rules and accept those fleeing the Syrian war rather then send them back to their EU country of entry. At the cost of billions of euros – an extra 4 billion this year, to be precise – Germany mounted a resettlement operation that strained its considerable bureaucratic and law-enforcement capability.
Though it hasn’t all gone smoothly, Merkel managed to use the window of opportunity Germans’ sympathy for the asylum-seekers gave her last summer to get hundreds of thousands housed and fed. She has been accused of both enticing more refugees to take dangerous voyages from the Middle East and, from the opposite flank, of being not sensitive enough to their plight as she insisted Germany couldn’t take everyone.
She may have sacrificed her political future to pursue that course. In the next few years, Germany, as Europe’s biggest country of immigration, will face integration problems that could undermine the ruling CDU party’s support in the 2017 election. The far-right protest movement is already regaining strength in her native eastern Germany. Yet she’s done more for the refugees than any other politician and she’s certainly helped more families to safety than the Pope or Zerai.
The chancellor’s role in the Greek crisis is perhaps the most controversial: For months, she played the Teutonic tank trying to run a rebellious Greek government into the ground. Yet hindsight may prove her approach correct. Rather than allow Greece to flout European rules and set a bad example for others, she got it back on EU life support, under tougher conditions than before, but perhaps with better chances of survival.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who bowed to the demands of Germany and its northern European allies, has been re-elected, signed up to the austerity course he originally opposed. The euro zone is for the moment intact, disruptive hard-left forces discouraged throughout the EU. As ever with Merkel, a happy ending is still far off and requires a lot of work, but worst- case scenarios have not come to pass.
The nation she leads has one of the darkest histories of any state in the world. Leadership in Europe, and increasingly in the wider world, is being thrust upon Germany because of its size and economic power. A Nobel Peace Prize for Merkel would show that her way of handling that burden is the right one and that her country has made great progress since the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, got his 1990 prize in part for helping Germany reunite.
In a recent memoir, Geir Lundestad, former secretary of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, revealed that Obama received the award in 2009 in part to strengthen him and encourage him toward great deeds. He then went on to admit that the ploy didn’t work; even his supporters were uneasy with the advance he received. No one can say Merkel hasn’t worked hard for peace under the toughest political conditions; but she, too, needs encouragement – perhaps more than Obama.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.