Smooth operator

Merkel's best-kept secret is her right-hand man Helge Braun

main 0204234193 Getty – Helge Braun Angela Merkel chief of staff chancellor Germany office
Learning from the master. Source: Getty

Helge Braun didn’t really have time for this. But Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff stepped out his limousine and politely shook hands with the director of the Peter Ustinov School in Berlin and the student representative assigned to welcome him. A large man with considerable heft, Mr. Braun literally dwarfed his two greeters.

He spoke to the assembled students for nearly an hour on the big political topics of the day – diesel bans, Brexit and the future of Europe. For the high school students, he recalled his own time as an exchange student in France. He exchanged his allowance of deutsche marks into French francs, but, frugal by nature, hardly spent any of it. He was astounded to find out when he returned home and changed the francs back into marks, they had lost a fourth of their value from him having converted the currency twice.

“Europe today no longer needs to worry about that,” said Mr. Braun, who does, in fact, worry about such things in his cabinet-rank post. He then listened patiently to three students playing “What a wonderful world” on their ukuleles. It was only when they also wanted to take time for a group photo that his patience started wearing thin. “If it can be quick,” he said.

Helge who?

Snap, snap and he dashed for the door, blazer flapping behind him. Since he is also in charge of Germany’s efforts to go digital, Mr. Braun has two full-time jobs that make for 15 to 16-hour workdays and leave little time for high school lectures. But taking time to address students is also characteristic of the 45-year-old Christian Democrat from Giessen, a city an hour north of Frankfurt, whose colleagues see a schoolboy-like enthusiasm in his eagerness to tackle new issues.

As head of the Chancellery staff and the only cabinet member in near constant contact with Ms. Merkel, Helge Braun is one of the most powerful people in Germany. But surprisingly, even staffers in other ministries ask, “Helge who?” when they hear his name.

How he managed to remain virtually invisible while rising to such a position of power is one of the mysteries surrounding Mr. Braun, who has been at his current post since the ruling coalition took power in March.

Working shifts in the emergency room

But it is not the only peculiarity. Mr. Braun’s background as a trained anesthesiologist is an unusual one for a career politician. Likewise, his ability to put the smooth functioning of the government ahead of his personal ambitions is another rare quality in politics. Further, riding herd on nominally-allied politicians is all the more challenging as Merkel’s era nears its end and rivals jockey for the succession.

There is some question as to whether Mr. Braun actually has his eye on the prize, with an aspiration to head the government someday. If that is what he wants, he’ll need to become better known to the public.

Hardly a political novice, Mr. Braun became a member of parliament in 2002, representing his district in the German state Hesse. He once lost to a Social Democratic rival and sat out the four-year legislative period, once again working emergency room shifts. He also held positions at the education ministry and previously at the chancellery. His political base is in his home state, where he is the best-known politician after the longtime prime minister, Volker Bouffier.

Annette Schavan, his former boss at the education ministry, cannot say enough good things about him. She describes him as the best-organized colleague she’s ever had and praises his ability and willingness to take on complicated problems.

The secret life of bees

The medical professional enjoys reading about science, whether in a popular scientific magazine or more abstruse texts on astronomy and nuclear physics. A recent study of the life of bees taught him a few things about how worker bees serve the queen bee – not irrelevant in his current post.

Mr. Braun himself attributes his success to his work ethic and his goal of never making a mistake. “Whatever I do, I try to do well,” he said. Ms. Merkel is reportedly very happy with her new chief of staff.

But not everybody loves him, at least not all the time. Business leaders are growing impatient with the lack of progress in building up digital infrastructure and getting government services online. Ambitious goals to make most important administrative forms available on the web by 2022 are not likely to be met at the current pace.

Back home in Hesse, CDU colleagues said he has become somewhat high and mighty since his recent promotion, acting as the lord of the manor in the party and handing down decisions rather than discussing issues with colleagues. “Berlin has gone to his head,” said one party colleague. “Others see it that way, too.”

Nonetheless, it is Mr. Braun’s strong political base in the state that gives him any hope for higher office. More often than not state prime ministers or parliamentary floor leaders become chancellor-candidates. So Mr. Braun needs to nurture this base and become more visible if he is to pursue higher office. Otherwise, it might be back to the emergency room.

Anna Gauto is a reporter for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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