The world won’t miss Donald Trump when his presidency ends next year. But it will miss his polar opposite, Angela Merkel, who is also expected to leave office in 2021. PAUL KNOTT reports.
Merkeln: a verb, meaning ‘to procrastinate, prevaricate & put off making a decision until the last possible moment’ is a tongue-in-cheek addition to the German lexicon that successfully caricatures the country’s chancellor Angela Merkel’s often cautious approach.
But it fails to capture the full impact of Europe’s most substantial political figure of the 21st century thus far. Merkel’s methodical leadership, strength of character and boldness when it matters have been crucial in an era blighted by macho blusterers.
Merkel insists she will retire after next year’s general election, although rumours that she might stay on a little longer are starting to surface in Germany as a result of the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) stumbling attempts to identify a replacement. Assuming Merkel does stick to her plan, the world will miss her when she has gone.
As a left-leaning foreign writer, I am wary of how expressing admiration for this right-of-centre politician may come across to my German counterparts. Over decades of travelling the world since my 1980s working-class, northern English youth, I have often been roused to righteousness by under-informed outsiders complimenting Margaret Thatcher.
Superficially, the two women share some experiences. Both Merkel and Thatcher were educated as scientists (although Merkel went much further in research chemistry than Thatcher), before becoming the first – and long-serving – female leaders of their respective western democracies.
But they otherwise have little in common. Merkel is far from the divisive and destructive force that Thatcher was, due both to her more moderate temperament and the strictures of the post-war German constitution. The German political system disperses power far and wide, deliberately compelling compromise.
Whatever one’s view on Merkel’s specific policies, it is difficult not to admire a woman who was teased at school for her “never show incompetence” motto. Her continued adherence to this ethos contrasts starkly with the impulsive idiocy of some of her international counterparts.
Merkel is a master of biding her time. Her method involves analysing the available evidence and carefully assessing the costs and benefits of the various possible courses of action before pursuing one.
The influence of her scientific background on this approach is obvious. Her upbringing in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is a factor too. In a Stalinist police state, you learn to be cautious before sticking your neck out.
Although born in Hamburg in 1954, Merkel moved to East Germany as a baby, when her Lutheran pastor father took up a parish there. To some extent, this family background marked her as an outsider in the officially atheist, communist GDR.
Merkel, though, lived a largely ordinary East German childhood. She was a good student who knew how to play the game when necessary, notably by actively participating in the regime’s Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ – Free German Youth) movement.
Little, if anything, in Merkel’s early years and subsequent career as a respected but obscure scientist offered any indication of the political life that would follow.
Her trajectory changed with remarkable speed during the tumultuous period that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East Germany. After a divorce and a spell squatting illegally in an unoccupied flat in East Berlin, Merkel was living more stably but still modestly by 1989 and becoming bored with her job.
Less than two years later, at the age of 35, she became Germany’s youngest ever cabinet minister in Helmut Kohl’s government of the newly reunified nation.
Unlike many other post-communist leaders in Central and Eastern European, Merkel’s astonishing ascent did not follow on from leading one of the movements that overthrew totalitarianism.
While she did eventually become involved in opposition groups, she was not an early mover or a prominent dissident. On the night when the Berlin Wall fell, Merkel, characteristically, had a brief look around then went home to bed because she had to get up early for work the next day. But, equally typically, once Merkel committed herself to participating in politics she did so with steely determination and stealthy ambition.
Having cast around the spectrum of parties to find a political home as East Germany disintegrated, Merkel joined the Democratic Awakening (DA) group. Its small size enabled her quickly to become its spokesperson, a role that gave her some profile and put her in a position to showcase her skills by handling the fallout when the party’s ebullient leader Wolfgang Schnur was exposed as a former Stasi (East German secret police) agent.
Despite initially being turned away at the door and returning home, Merkel used this sliver of recognition to gain entry to the CDU victory party in the early hours of the morning, after their success in the first and only free East German parliamentary elections in March 1990. There she set about making the contacts that would help to facilitate her meteoric rise.
The impression Merkel made on the movers and shakers present led within days to her being appointed the deputy spokesperson of the new East German government. Her language skills (excellent Russian and English, which her mother Herlind taught), work ethic and approachability allowed Merkel to shine in that role. She quickly attracted the attention of senior West German politicians. They were eagerly seeking credible Eastern talent to alleviate the impression of a western takeover in the run-up to Germany’s reunification.
Immediately after reunification on August 31, 1990, Merkel elbowed several better-placed contenders out of the way to secure a parliamentary seat as a CDU candidate in the Stralsund-Rügen-Grimmen constituency on the Baltic Sea. A month later Helmut Kohl appointed her minister for women and youth, a portfolio in which Merkel had little interest but felt unable to turn down.
The whiff of tokenism was reinforced by Kohl frequently and patronisingly referring to the softly spoken Merkel as “mein Mädchen” (my girl). He would regret it later. When Kohl and his presumed successor Wolfgang Schäuble were implicated in a party funding scandal in 1999, Merkel ruthlessly exploited her public platform and carefully cultivated media contacts from her days as a spokesperson to manoeuvre them out of her path to the party leadership.
In high office, Merkel’s methodical patience can occasionally be frustrating, particularly when a critical situation requires clear leadership from such a powerful figure.
The post-2009 financial crash euro crisis was a case in point. Merkel’s reluctance to take prompt and decisive action to resolve the issue inflicted unnecessarily prolonged pain on the people of Greece and other struggling European economies, almost bringing the EU and euro to breaking point in the process.
Then again, it could be argued that the common currency was ultimately saved, partly as a result of Merkel moving with great determination in pursuit of the objective once her mind had finally been made up.
It could also be said that by taking into account the strong opposition in Germany to the (simplistic but nonetheless powerful) perception of paying for debts run-up by other countries, Merkel prepared the ground for herself to be much more proactive when the next economic crisis hit.
The 750 billion euro European programme to tackle the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic was largely pushed through by Merkel and the French president Emmanuel Macron. This was a rare, but not unprecedented, instance in which Merkel acted boldly without feeling the need to exhaust all the other options first.
The previous occasion was perhaps the moment for which Merkel will be most remembered by history; her response to the 2015 migrant crisis. In the face of a continent increasingly consumed by hostility to immigrants, Merkel responded to the mass exodus from the horrors of war-torn Syria and elsewhere by opening Germany’s borders to over 800,000 refugees.
Her famous “wir schaffen das” (“we can handle this”) quote was both a neat summation of her political approach and influenced by the formative experience of Germany’s success in managing such a massive undertaking as reunification.
So far, she is being proven right. A remarkable proportion of the newcomers are already being successfully integrated into German society and proving welcome additions to the workforce of a country that needs more labour.
Merkel’s moral lead on this issue was even more significant than the practical aspects. Her cutting response to critics of “what would you have me do as a German – build camps?” highlighted her understanding that some things matter more than short-term popularity. And saying “I lived behind a fence for long enough. I do not wish to put one up again” encapsulated her grasp of the immense capacity of political power to shape peoples’ lives.
Unlike some of her contemporaries elsewhere, one never gets the impression that Merkel experiences her role as an ego trip or a bit of a lark. If she does depart the political scene in 2021 as planned, it is Merkel’s fundamental seriousness that we will miss most of all.