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German's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awards former Chancellor Angela Merkel of the country's highest Order of Merit or 'Grosskreuz des Verdienstordens der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in besonderer Ausfuehrung' during a Ceremony in Bellevue Palace in Berlin, on April 17.MICHELE TANTUSSI/Reuters

Germany’s former chancellor Angela Merkel was awarded the country’s highest possible honour on Monday amid reflection on her 16-year tenure at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy.

The first female leader of Germany, who stepped down in December 2021, was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit for special achievement by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a ceremony in Schloss Bellevue, Berlin.

At the event, attended by current chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and former national football coach Juergen Klinsmann, Merkel spoke of “many good experiences” in what others had described to her as the “snakepit of politics”.

Only two former chancellors of Germany have received the honour previously – Konrad Adenauer, the first leader of post-war Germany, and Helmut Kohl, lauded as a key architect of German reunification.

Merkel is known for steering Germany through the global financial crisis, the eurozone debt crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, but has faced criticism for her stance towards Russia since the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

In November last year, Merkel said she had aimed to convene European talks with Vladimir Putin the year before his invasion of Ukraine but ultimately did not see any possibility of influencing the Russian president at the end of her term.

As a veteran leader in the European Union, other aspects of her policies have also come under fire. These include her decisions to open Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015, and to phase out nuclear power.

The deputy head of her conservative CDU party, Carsten Linnemann, accused her of “glaring mistakes”, telling broadcaster ntv that the exit from nuclear power “was a mistake in the way it was done at the time, without saying how we were going to supply ourselves with energy in a reasonably self-sufficient way”.

In October, Merkel said she had no regrets about the course her government took regarding energy policy while in power.

Former allies came to Merkel’s defence, with her previous chief of staff Peter Altmaier telling broadcaster RTL that her achievements had been “recognized by many millions of citizens and worldwide”.

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