Amid the European debt crisis and the urgent question of how to deal with thousands of refugees illegally pouring into Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel found time in Berlin on Tuesday to shake hands with one of her fiercest political archrivals, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The two faced each other during the 2005 elections, when Ms. Merkel was crowned victor.
The closely followed meeting and friendly gestures between Ms. Merkel and her predecessor marked a coming of age of sorts for both politicians, and a burying of the hatchet.
Back in 2005 Mr. Schröder had little nice to say about his former political foe on election night, when the two rivals appeared during a post-event analysis on German government television. During the awkward appearance, Mr. Schröder came off as ungracious, refusing to concede victory to his upstart challenger, even after state-run media had declared Ms. Merkel the winner.
The old Merkel-Schröder political feud from 2005 seemed to be a part of the past Tuesday during a rare joint meeting in Berlin.
“There is nobody except for me in a position to form a stable government,” Mr. Schröder had said during the TV post-mortem with the heads of Germany’s main political parties , including Ms. Merkel. “Nobody except me!” he repeated.
“Do you honestly think that my party is going to start talks with Ms. Merkel in which she wants to be the chancellor?” he said looking at Ms. Merkel, who looked back at him, seemingly befuddled.
The result is now history. Ms. Merkel became Germany’s chancellor, ousting Mr. Schröder and Germany’s Social Democrats, and has held onto power for nearly a decade. In three coalitions, Ms. Merkel’s record and reputation has only grown. After the 2013 election, she even formed a coalition with Ms. Schröder’s Social Democrats as a junior coalition partner, the second time she has done so.
After his defeat at the hands of Ms. Merkel, Mr. Schröder went on to work in the private sector, most notably as a consultant with the Russian gas company Gazprom, which supplies Germany with most of its natural gas.
Mr. Schröder also has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country. He and his wife, Doris Schröder-Köpf, adopted two Russian children, Gregor and Victoria.
Since the 2005 election, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schröder have rarely appeared publicly together. Thus, Ms. Merkel’s decision to appear with and even endorse her predecessor’s biography in Berlin was surprising.
Both candidates appeared friendly with each other, if not a tad awkward once again, at the event. The old political feud from 2005 over topics such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a new tax reform, seemed to have been buried in the past.
“Mr. Schröder’s career is a classic up-by-your-own-bootstraps story,” Ms. Merkel said.
Mr. Schröder has an acute sense of power, pragmatism and a fighting spirit, she said. He is a great campaigner and should be honored for his tax reform, Agenda 2010, she continued, which many economists credit with kick-starting Germany’s latest economic boom.
The Agenda 2010 was a series of reforms introduced by Mr. Schröder’s Social Democrats-Greens coalition in 2003 that cut back on welfare and unemployment compensation payments. Thousands of people protested the changes in the streets of Germany’s largest cities at the time, and Mr. Schröder’s party lost support from its core voters.
Mr. Schröder threatened to resign if the changes were blocked within his party, triggering a confidence vote in parliament, which led to early general elections against Ms. Merkel’s conservatives.
Today, Mr. Schröder’s reform package is believed to have strengthened the German economy during the global financial crisis.
Ms. Merkel is now in her third term as chancellor, ruling once more with Schröder’s Social Democrats. During her second term, she governed with the Liberal party, a neo-liberal group of free-market capitalists. When a journalist asked Ms. Merkel whether she would like to work with Mr. Schröder in her current government, she replied:
“I would also have been able to work with Mr. Schröder in the cabinet,” she said. “You can always use creative people like him – in any cabinet.”
Mr. Schröder didn’t comment on Ms. Merkel’s political performance or whether she had done anything he wouldn’t approve of.
He said he wouldn’t want to talk about her politics just yet, except when it comes to the refugee crisis. He said a solution to the situation depends on how fast and effective European governments work out a new immigration law.
“Don’t work sloppily on that one,” Mr. Schröder said. And Ms. Merkel agreed.
The meeting of a reining chancellor and a predecessor is rare in Germany.
Their meeting yesterday in Berlin could be inspired by U.S. politics, where former presidents meet and praise each other in front of TV cameras on a regular basis.
Both, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schröder benefitted greatly from their joint appearance, from a publicity point of view.
It was also understood both chancellors are connected and belong to an exclusive circle.
In the end, when Mr. Schröder left the Chancellory in 2005, Ms. Merkel said she found the office empty except for a cake left on her desk.
She said she was very happy about that gesture.
A decade later, despite their wide political divide and a ream of old scores unsettled, the two political combatants seem to be friends again – at least for one afternoon in Berlin.
Thomas Sigmund is the bureau chief in Berlin, where he directs political coverage. Franziska Scheven is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin and contributed reporting. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org