German Chancellor Angela Merkel is stepping down after 16 years in charge of Europe’s biggest and most populated country.

In office so long she was dubbed Germany’s “eternal chancellor”, Merkel, 67, leaves with her popularity so resilient she would likely have won a record fifth term had she wanted to extend her mandate.

Instead, Merkel will become the first German chancellor to step down entirely by choice, with a whole generation of voters never knowing another person at the top.

Merkel has served for many in recent years as a counter-balance to the big, brash men of global politics, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin.

A Pew Research Center poll late last year showed large majorities in most Western countries having “confidence in Merkel to do the right thing regarding world affairs”.

The last days of her tenure have also been marred by what Merkel called the “bitter, dramatic and terrible” return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. The US is most to blame, but German troops were also withdrawn.

The woman once known as the “climate chancellor” for pushing renewables also faces a mass movement of young activists arguing Merkel has failed to face up to the climate emergency, with Germany not even meeting its own emissions-reduction commitments.

She became Europe’s go-to leader during the eurozone crisis when Berlin championed swingeing spending cuts in return for international bailout loans for debt-mired countries.

Angry protesters dubbed her Europe’s “austerity queen” and caricatured her in Nazi garb while defenders credit her with holding the currency union together.

More recently, despite admitted missteps in the coronavirus pandemic including a sluggish vaccine roll-out, Germany’s infection levels and death toll have remained lower than those of many European partners relative to its population.

Merkel, the EU’s and G7’s most senior leader, started as a contemporary of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac when she became Germany’s youngest and first female chancellor in 2005.

As France’s influence wavered under presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, and Britain began to peel off from the bloc of nations, Merkel rose to become Europe’s single most powerful broker of compromises.

She retained that role in the years leading up to and after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, patiently enduring the special pleading of British prime ministers in the hope of keeping the UK within the EU’s orbit while keeping a united front with the other 26 member states.

“We must do everything to prevent centrifugal forces,” she said in a speech shortly after the Brexit vote.

Yet while Germany may no longer be seen as a threat, such as it was during World War II and as separated with the Berlin Wall, another kind of suspicion has grown: that Merkel has turned her country into a kind of oversized Switzerland, a state that favours chequebook diplomacy over military conflict but remains politically neutral less out of principle than to protect its trade links.

Merkel provoked Chinese ire when she met the Dalai Lama at the start of her leadership, but intensified commercial ties to the People’s Republic thereafter, with nigh-annual visits to Beijing and exports tripling over the course of a decade and a half.

She aided Russian dissidents like Alexei Navalny, but has also relentlessly pursued a Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that many fear will increase Russia’s geopolitical influence. The distrust such decisions has sown in Ukraine, other eastern European states and the Baltics is often ignored in Berlin’s political circles.