The German chancellor has become an anachronism from a bygone Europe, writes Paul Knott.
Exactly how or when the end might come remains unclear. Yet the growing challenges to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s authority suggest that her 13 years in office are fast drawing to a close.
During that period, she has successfully consolidated Germany’s status as Europe’s biggest power, and has done so without scaring its neighbours. This has been no mean achievement and has been accomplished by her incremental, cautious pragmatism. That such trademark tactics now seem to be offering such diminishing returns simply underlines the extent to which they – and, seemingly, she – belong to an era of European politics that has already passed.
Though born in Hamburg in 1954, in what was then West Germany, Merkel’s clergyman father was posted to the East when she was an infant. Merkel grew up behind the Iron Curtain, where she lived and worked as a scientist until German reunification.
The fall of the Berlin Wall served as a catalyst for her political career. Only one month later, she joined a new party, Democratic Awakening, and after the East’s first (and only) multi-party elections, she served in the government which paved the way for reunification.
She has been re-elected to represent a constituency in the former Eastern region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern at every election ever since. Being a high-profile embodiment of East-West reconciliation was important during Merkel’s early years in politics. Reunification was seen in some quarters as a West German takeover of the East. Merkel’s rapid rise to a series of prominent Ministerial positions helped to mitigate this sentiment.
This asset was quickly recognised by the reunification Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who adopted Merkel as a protégé. His choice was based as much on her eastern roots as his recognition of her ability. But Kohl’s patronising attitude towards Merkel – who he regularly referred to as ‘the girl’ – later backfired, when she played a leading role in easing him out of the leadership of the Christian Democrats following a party funding scandal.
As well as being a symbol of reunification, Merkel personified Germany’s post-Second World War approach to politics, which is strongly geared towards generating consensus within a tight legal framework.
Politicians and diplomats working on international issues with their German counterparts sometimes find this legalistic approach frustrating. German officials will often agree that a particular course of action makes perfect sense in practice. But they will then fret at length about whether it accords with an obscure article of the German Constitution or a line from a long-forgotten UN Resolution. Given the speed at which real events move in the modern world, this method can cause dangerous delays in decision-making.
Whilst the German approach is easy to mock, there is are good reasons for it. The EU was formed in the aftermath of the war and grounded in mutually-agreed rules. This was intended to create a complete break with the past, where for centuries European nations had attempted to impose their will on others by force.
No nation, on obvious historical grounds, was more committed to this change in approach than Germany. From the German perspective, it was essential to insure against any return to the horrors of the past. As Germany grew in strength to become Europe’s economic powerhouse, particularly after the Hartz reforms of the early 2000s, it continued to be acutely aware of the need to reassure its neighbours of its benign intentions.
Merkel, who took power in 2005, is notorious for her adherence to this painstaking approach. It famously gave rise to a new German verb, ‘to merkeln’, meaning to prevaricate and delay making a decision until it is unavoidable. But times have changed and Merkel’s cautious style it is no longer such a good fit for the current era.
As the former Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, said as far back as 2011: ‘I now fear German power less than I fear German inactivity.’ This was a striking statement from a Pole whose country has suffered extensively over the centuries from German aggression. It is a view that has become more prescient as Merkel’s chancellorship has gone on.
The symbolism of East-West reunification that Merkel represents has also faded in significance. The starkest divides nowadays are between the haves and the have-nots, even in a country like Germany, which is more focused on mitigating inequality than Britain.
These divides and the related fear of immigration have prompted the return of far-right extremism across Europe, not least in Germany in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
The extremists are boosted by the twin external threats of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Both have attacked Merkel personally. Her responses have been admirably composed. But the return of extremism and the machinations of that diabolical duo highlight how personal resilience and cautious political craftsmanship are now insufficient.
Europe can no longer afford for its biggest nation to be so reticent in combatting these threats. Germany’s political influence now needs to match its economic clout. Germany must play a greater role in Europe, strengthening its ability to defend itself. And the EU urgently needs to be reinvigorated. These immense tasks demand blunter language, more dynamism and greater vision than Merkel usually exhibits.
EU reform is essential to get the organisation visibly working for its people again. It must do more to tackle the economic insecurity that is at the root of most of the dissatisfaction that Europe is currently facing. French president Emmanuel Macron is eager to take on this challenge. But he cannot be effective without an equally committed German partner.
Merkel shows little inclination to be that partner. Unlike Kohl, whose heartland was close to the French border and whose formative experiences came during the war, Merkel has no strong emotional attachment to the EU or Europe as a whole. She prefers to focus on domestically-driven, incremental change. Nor does she show much awareness of the damage done to the EU’s credibility elsewhere in Europe by German-backed austerity programmes.
Despite these deficiencies, and Merkel’s style being more appropriate to the time when reassurance and steady progress were the requirements, it would be unwise to write her off completely just yet. Discreet ruthlessness facilitated her rise to the top. And no-one stays there for so long without having substantial survival skills.
While she usually keeps it well-hidden, Merkel does have some capacity for boldness too. This was most evident in her 2015 decision to welcome large numbers of refugees to Germany.
Merkel’s strong stance against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine and interference in European democratic processes is less heralded but perhaps even more important. Merkel is a fluent Russian-speaker who grew up next door to a Soviet military barracks in East Germany. Her background means she has no illusions about the nature of nasty KGB men like Putin.
Merkel’s personal involvement ensured that Europe enacted stronger sanctions against Russia than would otherwise have been the case. Reportedly, Merkel telephoned the most influential members of the powerful German business lobby to tell them they would have to take a hit for the greater good of protecting European security. They complied – even at the eye-watering estimated cost of 2.1 billion euros to the German pharmaceutical industry alone.
Whilst these measures have not rolled back Russia’s initial aggression against Ukraine, they have deterred Moscow, so far, from going further. But the overwhelming sensation now is of a leader whose time is passing. The CDU/CSU and SPD coalition Merkel leads is weaker than at any previous time during her rule. Elements within it are challenging her authority with increasing frequency. And Europe needs a German leader who is less cautiously transactional.
Whether it will get one is another matter. There is no obvious successor.
Conservative Bavarian CSU politicians snipe at Merkel most often. But they are focused on the parochial objectives of battening down the hatches on immigration and protecting their region’s short-term prosperity. They appear oblivious to the long-term needs of the country and Europe as a whole.
The latest rising star of Merkel’s centre-left SPD coalition partners, the new finance minister and vice chancellor Olaf Scholz, is unproven and his party has multiple problems. These include a declining core support base and being feeble on security issues.
There is a risk that the next German chancellor will be more insular and prone to appeasing Putin’s Russia at a time when the absolute opposite positions are essential. Merkel may well end up as that rare figure – a long-standing leader who looks even better in hindsight.