Weekly Review

Listening to Merkel: A Guided Tour

108677459 merkel at the deutschland dinner with gabor nils broer for HB
Source: Nils Bröer for Handelsblatt

See if you can spot the omission, the yawning absence. First, the setting: Germany, which holds federal elections on September 24, is in the throes of “silly season”. The incumbent chancellor, in office for twelve years and bidding for another four, nonetheless takes time out and visits Handelsblatt for an interview on a big stage. We sit in a typical Berlin venue — a post-industrial hall radiating chic, with first-rate espresso inside and Maersk containers visible through the windows in the river docks outside. All eyes and ears are on Merkel, for well over an hour. What will she say?

Oh, we do learn a lot about her. How she loved reading Julian Barnes’ portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich, which reminded her, a former East German, of the creative and aesthetic compromises that people have to make in unfree societies. How she admires Marie Curie, a physicist like herself, for her systematic approach. How she, now 63, invited a brain scientist to her 50th birthday party and a historian to her 60th. This woman is intellectual, inquisitive, curious. And cultured, too: She notes the piano performance that greeted her, a piece from Beethoven. At home she prefers to talk about art and music — currently the recent Bayreuth Wagner festival, which Ms. Merkel attends religiously.

And she is witty, of course. Thrice her interviewer — our publisher, Gabor Steingart — goads her with a comparison to Otto von Bismarck, another German chancellor, who was known for his Realpolitik and at 19 years in office might defend his title against her in longevity. And thrice she parries effortlessly. “I’m not sure about Bismarck’s understanding of ‘win-win’,” she quips, bringing the house down.

What about her governing philosophy and style? Here, too, we gain insight. First, about her remarkable self-discipline and sense of decorum. Given repeated opportunities for a swipe at Donald Trump, she remains steadfast: “He was democratically elected, so this person deserves respect.” And anyway, her encounters with world leaders are “not about friendship, but about interests,” because “I’m meeting all these people not as Angela Merkel but as chancellor of Germany, and thus with a mandate from voters.” She is not interested in liking or disliking, but in finding arguments relevant to her counterparty to exploit “wiggle room” given constraints.

So empathy (not sympathy, which is quite different) is her frame of mind as she negotiates for Germany and Europe. To our surprise, she takes her German audience on an elaborate historical narrative — as told from the Chinese point of view! The audience is rapt. Empathy is interesting.

What about values?, you ask. Here she stays macro and large: “With globalization everybody can win. The whole thing is not a zero-sum game… That’s why I will continue to advocate seeing globalization as an opportunity from which all can benefit.” At a time of populist backlashes throughout the West against globalization and in favor of new nationalisms, this may be the defining issue of our time, admittedly. But among Germany’s mainstream parties, it is hardly controversial. Nor is Ms. Merkel’s line on North Korea (“there is no military solution”). Try to find a German politician who would say anything else.

Here, then, is the first big omission: policies, otherwise known as content. As in 2013, Ms. Merkel’s critics accuse her of denuding democracy of its necessary debates, of pretending that decisions can be arrived at as systematically as Marie Curie handled isotopes, until they become (a favorite Merkel term) “alternative-less”. This is the woman who was for nuclear power until she was against it; for the army draft until she was against it; against bailouts until they were alternative-less; against gay marriage until it was inevitable.

This raises a question for Germans as they coast to re-electing Ms. Merkel: Are there times in history, such as the crisis-riven present, when temperament already is leadership, and content is subsidiary? If the answer is yes — and that is my hunch — then Merkel deserves her fourth term. If it is no, we have a problem.

That brings us to the second big omission (have you spotted it yet?). It’s a name, a person, a man. He just did not come up during the interview at all. “Who else is there to vote for?”, asks one woman in the audience at one point. “His name is Schulz,” a Handelsblatt colleague helpfully reminds her. That would be Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrats and challenger for the office of chancellor on September 24. He’s still out there, somewhere. Or should be. Or better be. If he weren’t, wouldn’t that leave us alternative-less?

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