Greta Thunberg and Angela Merkel triumph at the Women of Europe Awards

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Two of Europe’s most recognisable public figures, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, swept this year’s Women of Europe Awards.

The awards honour women who promote European ideas and values, such as democracy, inclusion and diversity, through their daily work.

BioNTech founder Dr Özlem Türeci and community organiser Jenny Rasche were also crowned winners, injecting a strong German flavour to a virtual ceremony that celebrated women’s role in the project of European integration.

The awards are jointly organised by the European Movement International and the European Women’s Lobby. Euronews reporter Méabh Mc Mahon hosted the virtual gala.

“Women in Europe have naturally embedded qualities that have brought reasonableness and a sensibility to the world,” said Ewa Maydell, a Bulgarian MEP who is the current president of European Movement International, in her opening speech.

“Europe would be rather lost without the patience, without the compassion and the compromise we can bring to the table. These are three valuable things that have helped shape Europe.”

Angela Merkel was named Woman in Power for steering the European Union through multiple crises, including the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic, throughout her 16 years of German chancellorship. Merkel decided against running for re-election and will be soon succeeded by Olaf Scholz, the socialist finance minister in her last cabinet.

For almost two decades, Merkel played the part of Europe’s de facto leader and outlasted most of her Western counterparts, with the exception of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom she had a notoriously fraught relation. Her tenure was characterised by stability and pragmatism, although critics say she lacked the necessary vision and courage to tackle the root of Europe’s problems.

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Among those who criticised the Chancellor’s unshakable moderation was Greta Thunberg, the climate activist who rose to international prominence for leading school strikes. Last year, Thunberg urged Merkel and her fellow leaders to “be brave enough to think long-term” and “treat the climate crisis like a crisis”. More recently, she called COP26 a “PR event” and blasted politicians over their empty promises, dismissing them as “blah. blah, blah”.

The jury chose the Swedish icon for the Women in Youth Activism Award for her “courageous leadership in support for climate justice, social change and youth community organising”.

The prize adds to an ever-growing list of honours that Thunberg has amassed in her short career. She has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize and was named Person of the Year by Time magazine in 2019, becoming the youngest person to receive the distinction.

Meanwhile, Dr Özlem Türeci took home the Woman in Business Award for her scientific contribution against the COVID-19 pandemic.

BioNTech, the company Türeci founded with her husband Uğur Şahin, developed the first fully-tested coronavirus vaccine to be approved for emergency use. The mRNA jab, produced in partnership with Pfizer, has been sold to dozens of countries around the world.

“I am inspired every day by the intense focus and dedication of the scientific community, that finds its strength in its diversity and breaks down barriers, in the face of an unprecedented global challenge,” the professor said, reacting to the prize.

The Woman in Action Award went to Jenny Rasche, the founder and chairwoman of the Germany-based association Kinderhilfe Für Siebenbürgen E.V., which supports the integration of the Roma community. Roma people are Europe’s largest ethnic minority but many of them are subjected to discrimination and social exclusion.

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The jury praised Rasche for helping Roma children access the education and care system.

“Active and determined women can achieve more than any army ever could. I stand for women everywhere, and this Award shows that women are seen and that our commitment to positive change is recognised,” said Rasche, who was visibly moved when she accepted the award.

This year’s Women of Europe ceremony was hosted virtually due to coronavirus restrictions and a new surge in infections across the continent.

The online gathering took place on Thursday afternoon and was attended, among others, by Federica Mogherini, rector of College of Europe; Réka Sáfrány, president of European Women’s Lobby; Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, director of European Commission’s DG Communications; and Sylwia Spurek, a Polish MEP who sits with the Greens.

“It is extremely important to make the women of Europe, the women who have been the founding mothers of Europe, visible,” said Mogherini, who herself won the Woman in Power prize back in 2017 for her diplomatic work as the EU’s High Representative.

“Not only to pay tributes but also to show other women that, if they did it, it’s possible for all us to do it, and that our contribution is needed and is precious.”

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