Angela Merkel

Germany's Underrated Chancellor

Merkel AfD March AP
Angela Merkel is arguably one of Germany's best crisis managers, but her decade-long rule is being threatened by Europe's refugee crisis.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Angela Merkel, who marked 10 years as chancellor on Sunday, faces her toughest political test with Europe’s refugee crisis.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Angela Merkel is a physicist who has lead Germany since 2005 and the country’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, since 2000.
    • She is the first woman and first former Eastern German to be German chancellor. Ms. Merkel’s political mentor was former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
    • She is perceived to be Europe’s most powerful leader of the moment, and was ranked the world’s second most-powerful person by Forbes in 2012 and 2015.
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    Audio

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There was a time when Germany’s Christian Democrats used to celebrate ten years in office.

“Ten years of responsibility for Germany” was the slogan on a leaflet celebrating a decade in office by conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1992. Mr. Kohl’s event earned a big party in Bonn, including open-bar champagne.

Yesterday marked Angela Merkel’s own ten-year anniversary as German chancellor.

But she didn’t celebrate, although there would be many reasons Ms. Merkel and her party could be proud – despite terror warnings and a refugee crisis. Germany and its citizens made it through the financial and euro crises. Thanks to Ms. Merkel, the country has a strong position with the European Union and an excellent reputation abroad.

She is arguably the most powerful leader in Europe at the moment, the head of the continent’s largest economy, the world’s fourth-largest and the person in Europe who still has any kind of significant dialogue with Vladimir Putin. Globally, Ms. Merkel is the most powerful woman in the world.

There is no other politician in Germany, that the people trust as much as Ms. Merkel

Within Germany, Ms. Merkel still has a good reputation, according to polls – even months into the refugee crisis.

She is known to be informed and assertive.

There is no other politician in Germany, that the people trust as much as Ms. Merkel. According to a poll by the Allensbach Institute, an opinion and market research institute in Germany, Ms. Merkel is considered the best person to represent Germany’s interests abroad.

Although some conservatives in her own party are openly criticial of her refugee politics, none of them has the stature and respect to lead the party, or the country. Ten years after she assumed power as Germany’s first woman chancellor, the daughter of an East German minister has shown a cagey, uncanny ability to make Germans feel good about themselves and Germany. Her grip on power appears solid.

 

seehofer-merkel imago
On Saturday, Ms. Merkel was publicly humiliated in Munich by Horst Seehofer, the head of her Bavarian political allies, the Christian Social Union, who lambasted her open-door refugee policies. Source: imago

 

But how did she manage to achieve all that?

She doesn’t have a reputation of being brilliant. She is not an ideologue, but a pragmatist, neither an economic liberal nor a Social Democrat. She is not known as an electrifying public speaker. On the contrary, Ms. Merkel is someone who often appears to avoid making decisions, and only arrives at conclusions after much deliberation, to the frustration of allies and political enemies alike.

Her speech is often full of complicated language and tortured syntax that confuse people and obscure a clear message, perhaps intentionally.

 

CDU Angela Merkal Kohl 1991 Parteitag DPAMichael Jung
Angela Merkel as a young deputy with former Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1991 – one year before Mr. Kohl’s ten-year anniversary. Source. DPA/Michael Jung

 

Despite it all or maybe because of it all, people trust her.

They probably think that Ms. Merkel is down to earth, because she is careful instead of jumping to conclusions and she protects Germany against ambitious open-ended experiments. Some people want a reasonable leader and the rest of the electorate simply wants to be left alone. And this is what Ms. Merkel does – without ideology or political branding.

At the same time she has been a reliable navigator for Germany through the chaos of globalization and national crises. Whether this is a good or a bad tactic is yet to be determined. But in general, one can say that Ms. Merkel delivered on her deal with the German people – she has given them stability, which they crave above all else. In exchange, her people trust her.

Now after ten years of Ms. Merkel, it is time to see whether she can sustain that bargain.

Asked about the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into Germany, she confidently told a worried nation this year: “We can manage it.”

She is counting on the German people to follow her.

And it is the first time in a decade that Ms. Merkel has taken such a big risk.

Now it’s up to her to show whether she can keep her word. The conditions at the moment are bad. On one hand, thousands of refugees come into Europe and Germany every day. But the challenges to maintain order, integrate new arrivals and avoid violence are growing.

Ms. Merkel is also dealing with recalcitrant neighbors in Europe that are increasingly resistant and unwilling to work with her to solve the refugee crisis. But she needs her E.U. neighbors to limit the flood of refugees that is now straining Germany.

Ms. Merkel’s strongest skill is to take a big problem and divide into many smaller, manageable ones. In this case though, that tactic not not work. At the moment, she is dealing with many issues at the same time: To convince her European peers to open their borders too; to close a deal with Turkey to keep the refugees from entering Europe; and to address the fears of a German electorate threatened by refugees, foreign infiltration and terror.

When she started campaigning for the first time in 2005, she was widely considered a temporary chancellor.

Not that the last decade was easy for Ms. Merkel. It wasn’t.

When she started campaigning in 2005, she was considered a temporary chancellor. She didn’t have a power base in her party and didn’t have a political history. The only thing that people expected from her was to continue the reform package of her predecessor and one-time mentor, Mr. Kohl. She only became chancellor because everybody else was weaker than her.

In the beginning, Ms. Merkel appeared in public in a red jacket in the polar sea – an attempt to come across as Germany’s climate chancellor. But campaigns like that are long forgotten.

The first time Ms. Merkel was put on the spot was in 2008.

In the United States, the banking crisis started and Lehman Brothers nearly took down the world’s financial system.

Panicked retirees were lining up at Germany’s banks. Ms. Merkel had to save the German banking sector. Germany had to spend billions to provide state guarantees and recovery packages.

Events forced her into pragmatic crisis management.

Ms. Merkel made a deal with employers and unions, launched rescue packages and pushed austerity.

Her party, which wanted to actually reduce taxes, not expenses, was shocked.

But it went along, as it has done obediently for the last decade.

Germany made it through the financial crisis and began to trust the woman from East Germany. Her main domestic opposition, the Social Democrats, were unable to present a credible alternative in a series of elections.

The Social Democrats appeared weak and Ms. Merkel’s instincts were borne out, which led to her re-election in 2009 – and a second turbulent time in Europe and Germany. She lost both German presidents whom she helped get into office. She decided to abandon conscription and later to abandon nuclear power after the catastrophe at Fuskushima in Japan in 2011, despite the fact that she extended the lifetime of nuclear power plants just before the accident. Her tactics seem to be full of contradictions. To wait and see what may be useful is her new strategy.

Ms. Merkel made sure that Germany didn’t lose its strong euro. She was very strict on insisting on tough reforms in other countries, especially in Greece. She was criticized by some for only looking at Europe from an economic perspective. But it was probably the right thing to do. Like in her approach to domestic political matters, Ms. Merkel looks at Europe in very pragmatic terms.

While politicians before her were trying to maintain peace in Europe, Ms. Merkel is less emotional and interested in integration even if it involves painful cuts in sovereignty. With her austerity policies, Ms. Merkel can be sure to be respected by her European peers – but it is the kind of respect you have for a stronger partner. Now that she needs solidarity from her peers to handle the refugees, she encounters rejection and resistance.

Ten years of being Germany’s chancellor have left her with some scars. You can tell that she spent countless nights and weekends awake on the international stage. She is traveling to summits in Brussels, to meetings and to other countries. At the same time she needs to be vigilant to read her own party’s mood, what her coalition partner is up to, and what the German people think of her.

Ms. Merkel’s personality is indestructible, according to those who follow her closely.

She is capable of absorbing and abstracting high levels of information in a very short period of time. That skill is helpful to get through the routine of her job. She is not someone with an attitude or personal scandals.

She is married to a scientist; she has a country house in northeast Germany and always goes on vacation in the same area.

She has a wide range of jackets from which she pulls her cell phone. Ten years made her a part of this country. One knows her, one recognizes her. Even her gestures are familiar in Germany and abroad – especially her hand gesture – made by resting the hands in front of the stomach so that the fingertips meet, with the thumbs and index fingers forming a rough quadrangular shape – the Merkel diamond.

 

This article first appeared in Der Taggespiegel. To reach the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

 

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