Theresa May and Angela Merkel: Europe's two most powerful women have a lot in common

LONDON (THE WASHINGTON POST) - When Britain voted to leave the European Union less than three weeks ago, some people also blamed German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her pro-refugee policies, critics said, had helped the Brexit movement gain ground in the first place.

Anger at Merkel's pro-refugee policies may have been one reason why a majority of Britons voted for Brexit, causing Prime Minister David Cameron to resign and leading Theresa May to take over.

May is often compared to Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister. But ironically, there is one person with whom she might have even more similarities: Merkel.

Both are determined individuals known for their no-nonsense leadership style.

Merkel and May also share a pragmatic approach to politics - the key characteristic that brought them to power. And their opponents say neither is easy to deal with.

By calling her a "bloody difficult woman", Conservative politician Ken Clarke last week created the most-frequently cited description of May, so far.

The prime minister-in-waiting did not publicly condemn that characterisation.

Instead, she said the country needed more "bloody difficult women".

Some of Merkel's opponents in Germany would argue that May reminds them of the chancellor, and for the incoming prime minister, that may bode well.

Merkel has ruled the country for more than 10 years now, and there is no successor in sight.

Her approval ratings are currently about 60 per cent even though she has made unpopular decisions recently. In particular, the decision to allow more than 1 million refugees into the country last year drew strong criticism.

Germans still call her "mutti" - a trivialising word for mother - even though Merkel does not have children.

In Britain, May's childless marriage caused a heated debate after her remaining Conservative Party rival, Andrea Leadsom, said she was a better candidate because she had children.

Those comments were roundly criticized, and Leadsom preemptively dropped out of the race on Monday.

The fact that Merkel has no children has rarely been discussed, and like May, she has mostly refrained from publicly commenting on her private life.

Merkel came to power in 2005, when Germany was suffering through one of its worst economic crises in recent history, and her party, the Christian Democratic Union, was still shocked after Helmut Kohl, who governed Germany for 16 years, became a suspect in a donation scandal.

Nearly 13 per cent of Germans were unemployed back then.

Under Merkel - and thanks to economic policies her Social Democratic Union predecessor had passed - the German economy gradually recovered.

Last month, less than 5 per cent of Germans were out of work, and companies now often need to search abroad to find qualified job applicants.

Having grown up in Soviet-era East Germany and trained as a physicist, Merkel rose to and later stayed in power because she often decided to say nothing when others quickly rushed to judgment.

Merkel would usually wait for weeks or months to finally announce what she thought. There is now a new word in German for doing things very, very slowly: "merkeln".

Her unexcited style of doing things has been decried by critics for forcing the country's political discourse into a decade-long hibernation, but it may also be the reason why Merkel has seen four British prime ministers come and go while remaining popular herself.

May might approach her time at 10 Downing Street in much the same way.

Throughout the past few months, May campaigned in support of Cameron's position to stay in the EU, but there is uncertainty over her true beliefs: Some argue she always secretly supported Brexit but wanted to show loyalty with Cameron.

It was striking how May avoided ever fully embracing either side but quickly chose a course when the outcome of the referendum became clear, vowing to make Brexit a reality. "My whole philosophy is about doing, not talking... I've got a job to do, let's get on and deliver," May recently told The Telegraph.

As Merkel did in 2005, May today becomes prime minister at a difficult moment. Britain's political parties are in chaos, nearly half the country is still in dismay of what has happened - and of what is yet to come.

In Scotland, where the majority of voters supported remaining in the EU, there is talk of either striking a separate agreement with Brussels or voting for breaking away from Britain. And in London, there is concern that the financial services businesses may suffer great setbacks.

When Merkel took over power in Germany in 2005, she vowed to end a political era that will partially be remembered for abuse of power and failing to improve peoples' lives. May has equally emphasised that she has never been part of the country's elitist boys' network. She went to public high school, not a private prep school.

"I've always championed women in politics. We just get stuck in; politics isn't a game, the decisions we make affect people's lives," May recently told The Telegraph.

Should May pursue Brexit, there will be tense discussions between her and Merkel.

But despite their differences over the EU, Europe's two most powerful women might get along remarkably well.

In fact, if May really is the British equivalent of Merkel, Brexit might never happen.

It is still likely that a majority of British voters will strongly object to the conditions of a Brexit that will be negotiated over the next two years.

Will May still lead the country out of the EU at any cost, even if she is only able to negotiate an unsatisfactory exit? Or will she again mirror Merkel and reverse course?

Merkel used to be a strong advocate of nuclear energy when it was still popular in Germany. But when Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant disaster shocked the world in 2011, Germans rebelled - and Merkel took note.

Days later, she announced a remarkable about-face: the end of nuclear power plants in Germany. The decision came at high political and economic risk, but Merkel continues to stand by it despite criticism from the country's powerful energy lobby.

Similarly, Merkel allowed Syrians migrants to stay in Germany last year. But when criticism of her pro-refugee policies mounted, she helped negotiate a deal with Turkey earlier this year that mostly stopped the influx of migrants within weeks.

Merkel has shown herself to be determined but flexible when public opinion changes.

Will May do the same in Britain?