On a summer evening in July, Angela Merkel had good reason to be showing signs of strain. Britain had just cut the cord with Brussels. Russia’s border war with Ukraine was smoldering despite the Minsk agreement. In Ankara, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a key partner for the European Union, was asking for refugee funding, respect, and his good name back in a German court. In Vienna, Austrian justices threw out the country’s presidential election results, giving life to a far-right candidate. In Munich, a Bavarian ally, Horst Seehofer, complained about coming so often to Berlin, refusing to be her “traveling uncle.”
But on this warm night in the capital, the German chancellor seemed at ease, soaking in the mild weather, conversing, joking and networking at three events over a glass of wine. At two of the stops, she worked her way good-naturedly through the crowds, taking selfies with more than 10 people at each event. “You would think that with all that’s going on, a normal person would show it,” says Axel Wallrabenstein, a Berlin publicist who led the youth wing of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) for part of the 1990s.
Merkel’s Teflon armor, acquired during the global financial crisis, Greek debt crisis, Ukraine conflict and refugee crisis, is chipped and exposed more than ever to a populist tide sweeping Europe.
But what is interesting in Berlin these days is what one doesn’t see. And with Merkel, a 62-year-old master of the unemotional, one could easily miss the signs of her increasingly vulnerable perch as leader of Germany and de-facto head of Europe. The domestic economy is humming, unemployment is at a 24-year low. But Merkel’s Teflon armor, acquired during the global financial crisis, Greek debt crisis, Ukraine conflict and refugee crisis, is chipped and exposed more than ever to a populist tide sweeping Europe.
Since coming to power in 2005, Merkel’s conservative CDU – the party of mentor Helmut Kohl – has fallen from 45 percent to 34 percent support among voters, according to a recent poll. Her decision to throw open the doors of Germany to more than 1 million refugees earned her Time Magazine’s Person of the Year Award – and also fed the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, which may force her to reshuffle her governing coalition next year.
But it’s not only critics at home eating up her time and energy: Around Europe, she is surrounded by high-maintenance populists – the intentionally disheveled British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the left-wing prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, the defiant builder of barb-wire borders, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, and in Austria, the future president, who may be Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, after he successfully challenged the vote.
Across Europe, Erdoğan and other populists are turning Merkel’s golden years into an unexpected, late-career test of character.
“With the populists, Merkel is much more endangered,” says Mariam Lau, one of Merkel’s biographers who covers German politics for weekly Die Zeit. “It is a difficult climate for anybody interested in serious politics and also for Angela Merkel,” Ms. Lau says. “Her job is on the line. She feels success will prove her right and success will take the energy out of the politics of anger.”
A tough challenge for Merkel now is Turkey’s Erdoğan, an increasingly autocratic ruler who shocked Germans in July with his brutal crackdown after a botched military coup, but whom Merkel needs to help stem the refugee flow into Germany. A poll by RTL-Stern showed Germans overwhelmingly wanted Merkel to stand up to Erdoğan on his human rights record, deal or no deal. She has done so verbally, but it doesn’t appear to be having much effect. Their relationship became more strained in June after Erdoğan sharply criticized 11 Bundestag lawmakers of Turkish origin who voted to recognize the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.
Erdoğan said the vote supported terrorism and questioned the lawmakers’ Turkish ancestry. Merkel called his remarks “incomprehensible.”
Across Europe, he and other populists are turning Merkel’s golden years into an unexpected, late-career test of character, one that will ultimately define her political legacy. While supporters say she’s had a lot of practice dealing with assertive peers – think Vladmir Putin, George W. Bush or Silvio Berlusconi – she seems to have new ones cropping up now all the time, like the new mayor of Rome from comedian Beppo Grillo’s Five Star Movement, or Marine Le Pen in France, or maybe even Donald Trump.
On Brexit, she must hold together what’s left of the European Union while dealing with a British government whose outward face is Johnson, the media savvy British separatist leader who will fight for the United Kingdom to get the best deal possible. In Athens, she must keep Tsipras and his Greek socialists on track to deliver on long-promised structural reforms and asset sales – tributes she needs to show for the rescue billions backed in part by German taxpayers. In Italy, she must convince Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to keep his country’s banking system afloat without flouting European rules against government bailouts.
In Hungary, and to the east, she must persuade unyielding governments to do more for the European Union than just take its subsidies and use its license plates. But even with such a formidable to-do list, Merkel appears to still have the upper hand, especially in Europe – for now.
She has not been shy to exert Germany’s influence in Brussels. After he defied her and closed off the Balkan refugee route, the Hungarian prime minister later sought his peace with Merkel at the EU level, where both of their conservative parties belong to the same umbrella group, the European People’s Party. Hungary is a net recipient of EU subsidies and German companies are big investors, owning parts of, for example, the former national phone monopoly.
“Her political base is secure, the economy is growing, she would be able to act from a strong domestic base,” says Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy analyst who works in Heidelberg and Berlin. “She can also be tough, and fight back and hit. She is very aware of her strengths, and takes the long view.”
But simple leverage in Brussels wouldn’t work with France, should Le Pen defy the odds and become French president next May. Polls show the French rightist leader with 29 percent of the vote, but the French electorate has a history of banding together in later voting rounds to keep the Front National out of the Élysée Palace.
Not to say that it couldn’t happen. But if it did, it could pose challenges for Merkel, who would be forced to risk a breakup of the French-German alliance that has set the tone on most E.U. decisions for decades. If Le Pen won big, she could push to tighten immigration laws in the European Union, forcing a break with Merkel, who would defend the right of movement.
But such a broadside isn’t guaranteed, and Le Pen has already shown a tendency toward pragmatism beyond her fiery rhetoric. She kicked her own father out of the party to make it more sellable across France. She knows she can’t rule without the center-right, who may be frustrated about France’s economic plight but want good relations with Germany, France’s largest trading partner.
Merkel and Le Pen don’t have a long history, but they sparred recently in the media over Merkel’s appeal for E.U. countries like France to take in their share of refugees. Le Pen accused Germany of wanting to saddle countries like France with refugees so it could press its economic advantage.
As leader of a minority party, Le Pen’s direct influence over Merkel is limited. Where it would become significant is if Front National starts to help shape the policies of the mainstream French parties. Across Europe, populists are pulling their governments to the right, further from the evermore moderate Merkel, and her stubborn defense of liberal Western values at a time of fragmentation in Europe.
“I think it is already having a big effect. I see things getting more difficult for Merkel,” says John Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who now advises a law firm in Berlin. “The entire equilibrium of the Western world, of Western values and continued globalization, is at stake,” he says. “The very big challenge for Merkel and Germany is to have enough inner resilience to remain liberal.”
Merkel has a track record of performing in the clinch, however, using her uncharismatic charisma, hidden humor and charm, and tenacity against a host of tough opponents. At a joint press conference with Putin in 2012, Merkel criticized the Russian leader for his harsh treatment of girl band Pussy Riot, who were jailed after a protest in a Moscow church. If she were as nervous as he, she scolded Putin, she wouldn’t be able to run her country for a month.
Two years later, she led the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, which are still in force. Putin got off on a bad foot with Merkel in 2007 at his residence in Sochi, when he greeted her with his unleashed black labrador retriever – a torture for Merkel, who is afraid of dogs. Looking uncomfortable, she carried on, and on the flight back to Berlin, put the scene in perspective.
“You have to understand his bravado,” Merkel said at the time, referring to Putin, according to one person on the plane. “This is compensation for everything going down in his country, the economy, the military. This is his way of dealing with it.” A dose of classic Merkel: Don’t be overwhelmed by moral disapproval or outrage, just deal with things as they are.
So far, that’s managed to work with leaders like Putin – Merkel is still his main contact to the West. But her skills may be tested by an emotional soliloquist like the New York real estate tycoon, Trump, who has described her open-door refugee policies as “insane” and has tweeted she is “ruining Germany.”
But Merkel is a master of anti-matter and negative energy, an emotional sponge who can absorb and render harmless the aggression of rivals until they talk themselves back to the table, where she is waiting with a plan. She managed to do it with diverse personalities such as U.S. President Bush and Greece’s Tsipras.
As the summer drew to a close, and the campaigning for the White House prepared to get serious, Trump trailed Democrat Hillary Clinton in most polls. Some observers, like the former German ambassador, Kornblum, see a good chance for a female triumvirate of Clinton, Merkel and new British Prime Minister Theresa May sharing Western power.
With Le Pen’s threatening to leave the E.U. and Trump’s completely transactional approach to NATO and his misunderstanding of the allies in Europe, it could become more difficult to get compromises.
But if Trump does prevail, he will encounter a German leader who may not be ready for U.S. prime-time TV, but has over a decade of experience dealing with populists, a trend that seemed to start in Europe and is now moving west, against the usual prevailing breeze from the United States.
Trump has hinted he may try to cut a new deal with Russia, which could come at the expense of Merkel, who has expended political capital enforcing economic sanctions that have upset many German exporters as much as their Russian clients.
In the good old days, Merkel could argue on principle with a close ally like U.S. President Barack Obama or French President François Hollande, but their disagreements usually dissolved fast amid the core principles that unite Western liberal democracies.
The rise of a Trump or Le Pen, while unlikely at this point, could fundamentally change that geopolitical calculus. “With Le Pen and Trump, that is threatened for the first time,” says Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank. “With Le Pen’s threatening to leave the E.U. and Trump’s completely transactional approach to NATO and his misunderstanding of the allies in Europe, it could become more difficult to get compromises.”
But first they have to get elected, something Merkel has done three times. Her refugee policies may be giving populists everywhere oxygen, and making life difficult even for allies like Klaus-Peter Willsch, a Bundestag conservative from central Germany. In recent local elections, the right-wing AfD party took 13 percent of the vote in Willsch’s district, even though he had distanced himself from Merkel’s refugee policies, which he says were too ad-hoc, and needlessly fanned the far right.
“I think she is someone who looks around and decides what to do, and that is smart,” Willsch said. “But in the hard situations, she must do the right thing, and not always go for the compromises. That is where we get into trouble.”
And with populists on the rise across Europe and perhaps the Atlantic, it’s an area where Merkel could get into trouble too.
Kevin O’Brien is editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. He has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist in Germany, Austria and the United States. He was the Frankurt and Vienna bureau chief at Bloomberg, and wrote for a decade about technology from Berlin for The New York Times and International Herald Tribune. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org