FORMER chancellor Angela Merkel has been decorated with Germany’s highest possible honour in recognition of her near-record 16 years at the helm of the country.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier bestowed the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit for special achievement on the four-term chancellor, who became only the third ex-leader to receive that level of distinction.

The other two were Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first leader, and Helmut Kohl, who led Germany to reunification after the collapse of the communist German Democratic Republic.

Steinmeier told Merkel and a group of guests – “For 16 years, you served Germany with ambition, with wisdom, with passion,” – in a speech at the president’s residence, in Berlin.

“For 16 long years, you worked for freedom and democracy, for our country and the wellbeing of its people. Tirelessly and sometimes to the limits of your physical strength,” Steinmeier added.

Merkel, 68, was the first woman to lead Germany and the first chancellor who grew up behind the Soviet-controlled Iron Curtain.

The president also said: “With your chancellorship, you ensured that a woman at the head of government, that female power too, will forever be a matter of course in our country.”

Merkel stepped down in December 2021 with a well-regarded record of leading Europe’s biggest economy through a series of crises, including the global financial crisis, the eurozone debt crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

She did not seek a fifth term and ended her tenure as post-Second World War Germany’s second-longest serving leader, 10 days short of one-time mentor Kohl’s record.

The National: Helmut Kohl is Germany's longest serving post-war chancellor Helmut Kohl is Germany's longest serving post-war chancellor

In a short response after Steinmeier’s speech, Merkel thanked the many different people who helped her along the four terms of her chancellorship – including some of those who attended the ceremony such as her husband, Joachim Sauer, her longtime spokesman Steffen Seibert, many political companions and advisers, and even former German national football coach Juergen Klinsmann.

Merkel’s legacy has attracted increasingly critical scrutiny since her departure, largely because of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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She has staunchly defended her diplomatic efforts, saying that a much-criticised 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine bought Kyiv precious time.

The former leader has also been unapologetic about her government’s decisions to buy large quantities of natural gas from Russia – Germany’s primary gas supplier – when she left office, saying last year that “from the perspective of that time” those decisions made sense.

Merkel has kept a relatively low profile since stepping down and has stayed out of the current political fray.