A political colleague once compared Angela Merkel to a pilot you would trust to safely fly and land the airplane.
Franz Müntefering, a former leader of the Social Democrats who served in a previous coalition government with Ms. Merkel as vice chancellor, said the plane “will arrive safely, but you just do not know where.”
On day three after the U.K. referendum, Ms. Merkel seems to be confirming Mr. Müntefering’s assessment of her governing style. Crisis management is in full swing, but behind the scenes she’s deftly attempting to manage varying parties’ expectations while trying to avert too much change to the European Union.
Once the facts of the U.K. vote to leave the European Union became clear on Friday, the German chancellor went into turbo mode, attending one meeting after another. Ms. Merkel gave a press statement, but declined to answer questions.
On Monday a mini-summit is planned at the German chancellery with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President François Hollande. Euroskeptic Polish Beata Szydlo is tellingly not expected at the table. Dissonance and disagreement are undesirable right now.
According to media reports on Monday, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande have taken pains to show a common front ahead of the meetings. Mr Hollande has warned that “separated, we run the risk of divisions, dissension and quarrels.”
Ms. Merkel has also invited the E.U. Council president, Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, to meet with her and the other leaders in Berlin. Then on Tuesday, she will give a government policy statement in parliament before flying to Brussels for a special E.U. summit.
If the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, Ms. Merkel will lose a close ally when it comes to free trade and competition.
“Brexit is a great opportunity for the chancellor,” said Manfred Güllner, founder and head of the Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis, adding that Ms. Merkel could do what the Germans have always liked to see her doing – being the one who takes care of things.
The situation is similar, he said, to the time before the 2013 German elections when Ms. Merkel was able to protect Germany from the worst effects of the euro and the financial crisis.
Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of Germans, 82 percent, want to remain in the European Union, according to a Forsa poll for Handelsblatt. But nearly one in three Germans, or 27 percent, want a referendum on Germany’s E.U. membership. Nearly half, 42 percent, are convinced that other countries will follow the example of the United Kingdom and will leave the European Union.
But what does Ms. Merkel have in mind to dispel the doubts of German citizens? “There’s no beating around the bush,” she said in her statement shortly after the U.K. referendum, “today is a turning point for Europe, it is a turning point for the European unification process.”
And yet one got the feeling that Ms. Merkel would rather dawdle through the Brexit process. She has told confidantes that she is convinced that Europe is on the right track and, speaking at a meeting of the CDU and the CSU on Saturday, the chancellor laid out Germany’s response to the U.K. vote over the coming days and weeks.
No one should demand hasty reforms of the E.U. institutions, she reportedly said, according to one meeting participant, adding that level-headedness would be the order of the day.
But how quickly should the E.U. reform process be initiated? And who should take the first step? It was, however, striking that Ms. Merkel was not joined by her vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, when she gave her post-referendum statement, which would have demonstrated the unity of the German coalition government. But that unity isn’t really there.
Ms. Merkel wants to give the British more time to formally request their withdrawal from the European Union. In an interview with Handelsblatt, Mr. Gabriel called on the British Prime Minister David Cameron to move quickly with the separation from the European Union. “The British have now decided that they are leaving,” he said. “We aren’t going to hold talks about what the E.U. can still offer the Brits so that they stay in after all.”
So Mr. Gabriel’s Social Democrats are looking for speed while Ms. Merkel has lingering regrets over the United Kingdom’s decision. With a Brexit, Ms. Merkel will lose a close ally when it comes to free trade and competition. The European-American free trade agreement TTIP becomes a tick less likely to happen.
Ms. Merkel will no longer have the United Kingdom on her side for her reform and austerity approach, especially when it comes to the southern E.U. members. Together with the United Kingdom and other northern European countries, Ms. Merkel always had a blocking minority to keep the European Union on her preferred track.
In her statement to parliament on Tuesday, Ms. Merkel is expected to address the doubts that people feel over the European integration process, according to chancellery sources. It would be even more interesting to hear Ms. Merkel’s assessment of whether Europe will need to fund a “Club Med” in the future.
Thomas Sigmund Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau chief. To contact the author: email@example.com