After weeks of low points in domestic affairs, Angela Merkel makes a return to the international stage in, of all places, the sedate city of Hanover in northern Germany.
In recent months the German chancellor has lost two state elections, seen a plunge in opinion polls and endured a heated debate over the case of German television comedian Jan Böhmermann’s satiric “poem” about Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in which she has, in the end, admitted to having made a mistake.
On the other hand, Ms. Merkel can do at the Hanover industrial fair what she loves to do and can do best, namely foreign affairs.
Symptomatic of her domestic policy of avoiding things is Ms. Merkel and Mr. Obama making an effort to steer clear of the Volkswagen section when making the rounds of the Hanover Messe.
Ms. Merkel gathered the greats of the Western world around about her at the fair, the world’s largest such industrial showcase. Back-patting is the order of the day when U.S. President Barack Obama, Britain’s prime minster, David Cameron, Italy’s head of government, Matteo Renzi, and France’s President François Hollande meet with the German chancellor.
In matters like the conflicts in Syria or Libya, the word of the longest-serving head of state carries weight in this group. There was a clear “declaration of love” from Mr. Obama to Ms. Merkel. That went down like honey. Everything amongst the powerful is as it should be.
There is no sign at all of the day-to-day drudgery in Berlin.
But as important as the broad strokes of world politics are, elections are seldom won with them. Ms. Merkel’s plunge in the opinion polls is also rubbing off on her party, the ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union, which has lost almost 10 percentage points in recent polls. It would seem Ms. Merkel’s presidential-style of government is reaching its limits.
Naturally, it’s nicer to listen to hymns of praise from Mr. Obama. A querulous person like Horst Seehofer, the premier of the state of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Ms. Merkel’s CDU, is unlikely to say of Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy, “History will prove her right.”
Whether Sigmar Gabriel, whose center-left Social Democrats form part of Ms. Merkel’s coalition government, will ever call the chancellor “one of my closest partners and also a friend” also remains to be seen.
But a lot is at stake for the leaders of both parties. Mr. Seehofer is fighting for the independence of the CSU, and Mr. Gabriel is worried about the existence of the SPD as a party representing the needs of the people.
Both of these problems appear insignificantly small in the face of world politics, but for Germany’s coalition partners the woes have reached existential proportions.
Symptomatic of her domestic policy of avoiding things is Ms. Merkel and Mr. Obama making an effort to steer clear of the Volkswagen section when making the rounds of the Hanover Messe. In normal times, there was no way around German’s largest company for Ms. Merkel. But, given the Dieselgate emissions scandal, these don’t happen to be normal times.
It is said the American side doesn’t want to further aggravate its already tense relationship with the carmaker. Photos with Mr. Obama would have sent the wrong signal. But, from a German point of view, such images would have sent an important message: Even in times of crisis, the chancellor guides the U.S. president to Volkswagen, thus demonstrating her commitment to the car company and its products!
On Tuesday, the leaders of the German car industry are meeting in the chancellery to speak with Ms. Merkel not only about the demands of electric mobility but also to discuss the fallout from VW cheating on emissions tests. But that will all take place behind closed doors.
That’s why a real opportunity was missed in Hanover.
The chancellor always shows weakness when she quickly commits to a direction. That was the case with the NSA affair (“Spying among friends is never acceptable”). Her “We can manage it” in the refugee crisis is haunting her to this day. In the Böhmermann affair, she spoke of a “deliberately insulting” poem. She was later forced to qualify all of these apodictic assessments. Did that play a role in why Ms. Merkel sidelined VW?
Before the 2017 national elections in Germany, there will be the summit of the seven leading industrial nations in Tokyo and, more importantly, the meeting of the G20 in Hamburg. A guarantee for beautiful photo-ops once more.
But Ms. Merkel must finally present a plan on how she plans to make Germany fit for the future. It’s all about the Internet of Things, the digitalization referred to as Industry 4.0, or the promotion of electric mobility. At any rate, an issue such as redistribution of retirement benefits at the cost of a younger generation is not a part of it.
Ms. Merkel’s vice chancellor, Mr. Gabriel, has quite rightly addressed the working middle class. They are expecting relief and not a foreseeable tax increase, should the multi-billion pension plans be made reality. Savings-account holders, and other parts of the economy as well, are hoping for a quick end to the zero interest rate. Small- and mid-sized companies want to know how things are going to proceed with the reforming of inheritance tax.
If there are no answers to all of that, even the most beautiful photos won’t help anymore.
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