The arduous final spurt of her election campaign does not appear to be taking its toll on Angela Merkel. At the Handelsblatt event “Deutschland Live” in Berlin’s Westhafen district, around 450 members of the Handelsblatt business club met a plain-spoken chancellor. About 100,000 people followed the interview online via live streaming, with the highlights reaching over half a million people via social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In particular, Ms. Merkel’s skeptical comments about Donald Trump caused a stir in the United States.
Handelsblatt: Ms. Merkel, at one of our first meetings in Bonn we discussed extroverted politicians such as Jürgen Möllemann and Guido Westerwelle. You said no one had prepared you for that type of character, that you didn’t have anyone like that growing up in East Germany. Decades later, you’re surrounded by extroverted politicians like Putin, Trump and Erdogan. Is it actually ever possible to be prepared for that?
Angela Merkel: I have since had a lot more experience of the different types of people who are involved in politics. That makes it easier to deal with. I’m learning a lot about very different things…
… about Donald Trump, for example?
Whatever the differences of opinion, he won a tough election battle. He wasn’t just handed the presidency on a silver platter. There were more than 10 competing candidates from the Republican Party alone. Ultimately, he won in accordance with American electoral law. That shows that he was democratically elected and that this person must be shown respect. When you meet different politicians from different countries, it’s not about friendship, but about interests.
It’s also about values, isn’t it?
I am guided by those values that make up our constitution. But what’s important is that I meet all these people not as Angela Merkel, but as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, i.e. with a clear mandate from voters.
You became chancellor 12 years ago. When I first visited you in your new office, I asked you: “And?” You answered: “Thanks for asking, I have settled in well.” The question today is: the world around the chancellery is experiencing a kind of permanent upheaval. Is it at all possible to settle in? Or do you have to work it out anew every day?
A week before I was elected chancellor, I was already feeling queasy about the task. I can still remember talking to the incoming vice chancellor, Mr. Müntefering. He said: “Ah, it’ll be all right.” That helped me, because he was already familiar with how things worked from his time in office with Gerhard Schröder. Looking back, I have to say that I was lucky in a way. We had a quiet phase of development between 2005 and 2007. Yes, we had to tussle together within the grand coalition. But we also felt the effects of the reforms implemented by the Schröder government. In that respect, I also had time to learn a lot about the foundations of governance.
Things were becoming less settled by 2008.
The international financial crisis happened, which required all our strength. For the first time we experienced in a massive way how globalization affects everyone. That was followed by the euro crisis and the challenge with Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, which we had blocked out for a long time, and later the consequences with the refugees. It was very helpful that I had the early years to get used to classic government business, and was therefore equipped for these challenges.
The Americans distinguish between two styles of governing. One is driven by the political vision a leader wants to push through – the Americans call it “agenda driven.” The other style of government is “event driven,” whereby the head of government is repeatedly forced to react. How would you describe your term in office?
I have always tried to do both. I consequently pursue plans that are very important to me, even when there are external events. One of my decisions was to bring the minister of state for integration into the chancellor’s office. I introduced the integration summit, for example, because we were doing to little to integrate second- and third-generation guest workers. In some cases, they were still being treated as guest workers. Or take the dialog on innovation that I established. Then events suddenly come along that throw everything into disarray and prevent these important issues from being examined publicly. But I know for myself that we will keep working on it. Then later, I will have a foundation that we can build on. It’s important to me not to lose sight of these things.
So you tried to do both, a third way, as it were?
That’s something that the public often doesn’t notice. Sometimes I’m sad about that, because suddenly there’s a crisis in Greece and the substantive work on other important issues no longer counts. And sometimes you’re happy because you can pursue your own concepts without obstruction.