Angela Merkel is riding high. As she returns from holiday to hit the campaign trail for the German elections, she is not only her country’s most popular leader for a generation, but arguably the most respected politician in the world. How has this unflashy East German scientist — who disdains glitz and glamour to the point that when she wears a new dress in public, it draws comment — succeeded in scaling the heights of international politics?
There is a mystery about Merkel: She succeeds by being a woman seemingly without mystery. Unlike the ‘Iron Lady’, she rarely uses her feminine qualities to beguile men or impress women. Her natural habitat is not the public platform; she does not tweet or text about anything and everything in the news. Intensely private, she comes across as unpretentious and incorruptible. That is why Silvio Berlusconi, as vain as Merkel is modest, did not know what to do when they clashed, except to whisper sexist obscenities behind her back.
Next month, on September 22, Germany goes to the polls in what has become virtually a referendum on Merkel — and she is on course to win a third term of office. Her Christian Democrats are polling around 40 per cent, twice as much as the Social Democrat opposition. It should be enough to win by a landslide, but under Germany’s proportional representation system, she will still need a coalition partner. The Free Democrats, her present allies, are struggling to cross the 5 per cent threshold to stay in parliament, but Christian Democrats will probably use their second preference votes to keep them in government. Assuming Merkel can forge a coalition of some sort, she will boast of a record matched by only two of her post-war predecessors: Konrad Adenauer, who restored respect for the Germans, and Helmut Kohl, who reunited them.
Though Adenauer created her political creed, Christian Democracy, and Kohl was Merkel’s mentor, they were both patriarchs in a patriarchal society. Their 59-year-old successor has turned her satirical nickname of “Mutti” (“Mummy”) — she has no children — into a badge of honour. Sensitive to history in a nation understandably suspicious of charismatic leadership, she has cultivated an unthreatening, homely, even dowdy image that delights voters but infuriates her (mainly male) colleagues and opponents. Her style is in some ways more like the Queen’s than Margaret Thatcher’s: She has a no-nonsense manner, but is rarely divisive and never dictatorial.
As her enemies have found, however, she is definitely not to be underestimated. On the world stage, she owes her clout not just to the country she represents — although Ingolstadt, where she had been due to speak until a hostage-taking forced the visit to be cancelled, is the home of Audi, a potent symbol of Germany’s industrial prowess. Nor is it entirely down to her lacklustre rivals for the leading role, even though Barack Obama’s mishandling of Egypt and Syria has already left him looking like a lame duck, Vladimir Putin seems to relish playing the pantomime villain and the hapless Francois Hollande is even more unpopular than his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
No, the truth of the matter is that, if there is one word to characterise Merkel, it is decency. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she comes from the tradition that gave us the sacred music of Bach, Handel and Brahms. She stands for a Germany that shoulders its responsibilities as primus inter pares in Europe. On the world stage, she does not carry a big stick — the German military has not covered itself with glory in Afghanistan — but her integrity, intelligence and insight lend her words weight. When Thatcher spoke, the world listened. So it is with Merkel.
In an interview last week, for example, she gave notice that the European Union might have to “give something back” to nation states. What this might mean was left deliberately vague. But for a German leader, hitherto seen as an arch-federalist, to talk openly about restoring powers to national governments is unprecedented. It suggests that something is finally stirring in the Eurozone’s undergrowth. What brought about this change of heart? David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on British membership was one of the factors.
Another, which she explicitly mentioned last week, is the crisis in the Netherlands. Coalitions in the Netherlands come and go but, unlike the British and Germans, the Dutch have yet to see their economy revive. Having had their liberal consensus rent apart by the loss of control over their borders, they have no appetite for “more Europe”.
The Germans are keen to keep their neighbours in the Netherlands as allies in their wrangles with the Latins to the south. If the price of Dutch support is a limited repatriation of powers from Brussels, Merkel will stump up. The third factor in Merkel’s calculus is an unfamiliar phenomenon: German Euroscepticism. Up to half of all Germans will ditch the euro and stop bailouts tomorrow, polls suggest. This tide of opinion has given birth to a new party, Alternative for Germany. Merkel is determined to crush this upstart — she has noticed the damage that Ukip is doing to the British Conservatives — and her method is to steal its clothes.
The trouble is that Europe is stuck with the euro and all that goes with it. The markets have been calmer since the Germans underwrote the European Central Bank’s promise to do “whatever is necessary” to prevent the continental banking system from collapsing.
And some of the invalids are out of intensive care: Greece, for example, claims that it is on course to balance its budget this year, not counting interest and repayments. Yet, the underlying problems of the Eurozone have, if anything, become more acute as the gap widens between the Latin mendicants to the south and the Teutonic knights to the north. German exporters have done rather well under the single currency, having accumulated a trillion-dollar surplus with the Eurozone, but the German taxpayer has had enough of equally astronomical bailouts.
The continuing malaise of the Mediterranean nations has reinforced migration towards the more dynamic economies of Britain and Germany, which is putting pressure on public services and welfare budgets — hence the unaccustomed spectacle of Iain Duncan Smith visiting Berlin recently to make common cause with the Merkel government against the European Commission, which is trying to stop the British refusing migrants easy access to benefits.
For Merkel and Cameron alike, immigration and welfare have risen to the top of the political agenda, with voters poised to punish politicians seen as a soft touch. Of course, as in Britain, the German Left see things differently. For them, the big issue in this election is cyber-spying, with anti-American conspiracy theories emerging from the Edward Snowden affair and wild comparisons made with the Gestapo and the Stasi.
For a few years an internet protest party, the Pirates, briefly captured many of the young with promises of free downloading. But it has now sunk without trace and Merkel is trusted to safeguard civil liberties by the great majority of Germans. Indeed, she was able to showcase not only her respect for individual freedom, but her solidarity with the Jewish people, by rushing through a law to permit infant circumcision after a German court criminalised this ancient ritual.
Dealing with the Nazi past, in fact, is another area on which she never puts a foot wrong: She is supportive of Israel, though not uncritically so, and insisted on the sale of submarines that have given the Jewish state a powerful new means of defence, especially against Iran. If Merkel does win a third term of office next month, she is likely to become Europe’s longest-serving female head of government.
As such, she is a role model for women everywhere. Her statesmanship also bears comparison with the two grand old men of German politics, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. The latter, her old boss, held office for a record 16 years and she would quite like to beat him.
True, she has been in office for eight years already, but she still has the energy to keep going — and having recently raised the retirement age to 67, she has plenty of time to reshape Germany, and Europe, before she departs the scene.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2013
Daniel Johnson is the editor of Standpoint.