Angela Merkel: World's most important person?

On December 22 1999, a letter appeared on the front page of Germany’s leading conservative daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It contained a searing attack on the country’s most highly regarded statesman, Helmut Kohl, recently retired chancellor and much-fêted architect of reunification.

Kohl, then mired in an ugly party funding scandal, had to be cut loose, the letter urged, as teenagers must jettison their parents to grow into adults.
The only way forward for his Christian Democrats was a complete break with their past.

It was a remarkable letter, a clinical and very public coup de grâce delivered to an eminent, mortally wounded elder. What made it more remarkable was that the person who signed it was not one of the obviously thrusting young pretenders to Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) throne, but a moon-faced and oddly unmemorable protégé whom he used to refer to, dismissively, as das Mädchen—the girl.

Some like to see in this episode—which launched Angela Merkel on the stratospheric trajectory that would see her elected head of the centre-right CDU the following year and Germany’s first woman chancellor barely five years after that—proof positive that she is a sharp, maybe even a ruthless opportunist, eminently capable of bold, decisive and, if necessary, dirty deeds to achieve her ends.

Others construe it more as an uncharacteristic moment of madness from a politician who otherwise has constructed an entire career on caution and consensus—a public figure so superficially unremarkable, so singularly lacking in passion or charisma that in nearly 25 years in politics she has, as her biographer puts it, “not made a single speech that stayed in the memory”. A moderator, not a leader; a tactician, not a strategist.

She could, of course, be both. But, as the euro teeters on the precipice and economic disaster beckons, what is becoming increasingly clear is that if she is, a great many people (most of them, it has to be said, outside Germany) would actually quite like to see a bit more of the former and rather less of the latter. A touch more of the bold and decisive, somewhat less of the calm and methodical. If possible.

Merkel is, after all, about the most important person in the world right now. As leader of the eurozone’s undisputed economic powerhouse, she in effect holds the future financial wellbeing of all of us in her hands. And the worry is that she is not up to the job. For all her undoubted qualities and undimmed domestic popularity (the pollsters, certainly, see no hint of a rival who could threaten her re-election in 2013, for a third successive term), Merkel, a pale, irredeemably frumpy, maddeningly hard-to-pin-down shadow of an Adenauer, a Brandt and a Kohl, is not what is needed, say her critics.

Some are downright damning. “Since the very beginning of this crisis, in 2007-2008, Angela Merkel has not ceased providing us with the proof that she is really not the stuff of which great leaders are made,” said Jean Quatremer, long-standing Brussels correspondent of the French daily Libération and a veteran observer of European affairs.

“She’s navigating by sight, with no real political vision and no authority. So much sluggishness, so much incapacity to grasp the gravity of the situation, takes the breath away ... Angela Merkel has now become Europe’s principal problem.”

Others are not as scathing, but no less despondent. Merkel’s greatest failing, said Charles Grant, of the pro-European think-tank Centre for European Reform, was that she was either unwilling or unable to question prevailing German orthodoxies. “Truly great political leaders, real statesmen - they can change the weather,” Grant said. “They’re prepared to think the unthinkable, to say and do things that they know will be deeply unpopular. Merkel just isn’t naturally quite brave enough to do a Thatcher, even a Sarkozy, and try to actually change the way people think.”

Messy and hesitant response
She has taken decisions to end conscription and, in the wake of Fukushima, to scrap nuclear power. But her second term, in a coalition with the liberal and increasingly unpopular Free Democratic Party, has been largely dominated by the fallout from the global financial and economic crisis. Her response to this at home has been criticised as messy and hesitant, but it is hard to argue it did Germany’s economy any actual harm.

But for most Germans, policies are not the point of Merkel. For them, what they know about her character far outweighs what they do not know about her ideas. Polls have for some time now showed her to be more popular than her party; that cautious, sensible, pragmatic style clearly resonates. Her biographer, Gerd Langguth, has said she likes to “sit problems out” and, rather than entertain grand ideas of a “historical mission” or “social vision”, seeks “to solve today’s problems in a way that ensures she stays in power”.

A large majority plainly like the image of Germany that Merkel projects. And that, when it comes to the eurozone crisis, may be the nub of the problem. Foreign critics may like to see Merkel as devoid of imagination; for Germans, she is level-headed. We portray her as dithering; in Germany, she brings to the summit table a much-needed dose of calm and reflection. A poll for the state broadcaster ARD two weeks ago found that her personal approval rating had risen by nine points since October to 57%. And she is not about to do anything that might upset that.

There is an ideological gulf, too, on the key question of economics. It does not help, concedes a German banker in Frankfurt who would rather not be identified, that few Germans, hardly anyone in the German government and certainly none of Merkel’s economic advisers, “have ever read Keynes, or even begin to get market economics. To some extent, they’re entitled not to, of course—they have the most successful economy in Europe. The trouble is, this thing is a hell of a lot bigger than Germany.”

So it remains the Bundesbank’s, Merkel’s and Germany’s deeply held conviction that discipline and austerity are the only ways out of the present crisis, and that any more generous solutions—collective eurobonds, for example, or allowing the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort, both ideas touted in London and several other capitals—will only encourage more profligacy in Europe’s irresponsible southern periphery.

“Her advisers are absolutely convinced they’re right,” said Grant, “and they won’t take lessons from Anglo-Saxons. But there’s a real danger that Merkel, neither an intellectual nor an economist, will go down as the woman who destroyed the euro because of this lack of boldness, this inability to challenge the intellectual climate in which she operates.”

Moreover, many Germans believe the euro has become a kind of unfair and prohibitively expensive tax on their economic prowess. It has also, of course, contributed greatly to their wellbeing, allowing the mighty German export machine to produce goods far more affordable in those ailing southern economies than they ever would have in Deutschemarks. But there is little political capital to be made from explaining that, and only very recently has Merkel started to make the effort.

In Brussels, Quatremer said: “She’s no doubt a good captain when the weather is calm. But, as soon as the seas get rough, she’s incapable. I would seriously doubt, for example, whether this chancellor would have been capable of persuading her citizens to accept the euro, as Kohl did in his day, in the face of overwhelmingly hostile public opinion.”

Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin and former political editor of the Hamburg weekly paper Die Zeit, believes at least one part of all this Merkel-bashing is simply misplaced.

It was true, she said, that the chancellor’s most striking characteristic was “her staying power. She’s just still there. Like Thatcher, except Maggie was thrilling and terrifying and Merkel is neither.”

Stelzenmüller also agrees that Merkel “leads from behind”. “She’s undeniably a master tactician, always there at the finishing line ... but she favours strategic ambiguity. She’d doubtlessly say people like [former British prime minister Tony] Blair and [United States President Barack] Obama are fools for saying out loud and up front what they’re going to do, then failing to do it.

“Few leaders are as responsive to public mood as Merkel, because none sails so close to the wind.”

That patient, logical, methodical approach has sometimes appeared to pay off—forcing Greece, for example, to pledge more structural reforms, and winning a voluntary agreement from the banks to take a 50% haircut on Greek debt. And Merkel has been able to overcome her innate distaste for Nicolas Sarkozy—the French president is all she detests in a man and in a leader: brash, flamboyant, impetuous, brimming with big but random ideas—to build a functioning relationship.

But she may also have stored up trouble for herself by ruling out potential exit strategies and by cosseting German voters, refraining for so long from telling them the truth—that Germany has not only profited from the euro but also helped to cause its problems. German banks, after all, lent to Greeks, who used the money to buy German products.—

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