The crowd rushed forward as the speakers arrived for a high-level U.N. event on the Sustainable Development Goals. I followed, assuming everyone wanted to get close to the flawless hair of actress Connie Britton. As people held their cell phones above their heads to take pictures, Britton slowly moved to the side and away from her fellow panel members.
Nobody noticed. Because she was standing in the way of the real celebrity – German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
TIME magazine named Merkel person of the year, citing Germany’s interventions in the Greek bailout, the Syrian refugee crisis and the fight against the Islamic State.
“Leaders are tested only when people don’t want to follow,” writes Nancy Gibbs, for TIME. “For asking more of her country than most politicians would dare, for standing firm against tyranny as well as expedience and for providing steadfast moral leadership in a world where it is in short supply.”
It is a notable rebuke to fellow person of the year finalist, Donald Trump. Merkel made headlines for opening up Germany to accept the influx of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Trump made headlines for calling for a ban on allowing Muslims to enter the United States. Both won strong support and opposition to their stances.
I told you @TIME Magazine would never pick me as person of the year despite being the big favorite They picked person who is ruining Germany
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2015
She is the first woman chosen for the honor in nearly 30 years and only the fourth since the magazine started its person of the year in 1927. The honor recognizes, not only refugee support, but also Germany’s position on the Greek bailout, which was less popular. The terms Germany placed on Greece for the economic bailout were seen as harsh by some, particularly Greeks. It was an important moment that some say helped stave off what might have been the beginning of the end of the European Union.
But it is her leadership in the face of the refugee crisis where Merkel did an immense amount of good that garnered widespread recognition. Germany pledged to take in 800,000 refugees at a time when European countries were closing borders and actively telling asylum seekers to go away. And Merkel doubled down on her pledge in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.
“The strongest response to terrorists is to carry on living our lives and our values as we have until now – self-confident and free, considerate and engaged … simply sealing ourselves off will not solve the problem,” she said late last month in response to political opposition to her stance.
Even ally parties with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union are pushing for limits on the number of refugees allowed to enter Germany. Her popularity ratings fell below 50 percent as a result of her refugee policies, after holding steady at 70 percent for years. As the issue gives traction to right-wing parties across Europe, Merkel may be one of the leaders who fall. But under her leadership, Germany is undertaking a heroic response to one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of this generation.