Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, used to be viewed like the German football team — invincible, with exceptional technical skill and a steely determination that always prevailed. Or, to use another metaphor, her style of governing was reminiscent of the slogan of car manufacturer Audi, Vorsprung Durch Technik: “Advantage through technical prowess.”
But all things must come to an end. Last month, Audi’s CEO Rupert Stadler was arrested for his alleged role in the Volkswagen Group’s diesel cheating scandal. And we all know what happened to Joachim Low’s German team in the World Cup.
Twelve years ago, Merkel summoned a crestfallen Jurgen Klinsmann for a dressing down after Germany lost a match to Italy. Back then, “Mutti” (mother) was in full control of her party, her country and the European Union (EU). She could dictate that Britain gave up part of the EU budget rebate negotiated by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She could also demand of Klinsmann that Germany did not play a 4-4-2 formation in the 2006 World Cup.
Merkel’s passion for football is well-known. When she and her fellow G7 leaders were watching the Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich in 2012, she taught the then United States president, Barack Obama, to say “schei_e” when the Bavarians missed a penalty.
Now, though, she has a bigger fish to fry. After almost 13 years in power, time is rapidly running out for the German chancellor.
Nowhere was her diminishing influence more evident than at last week’s EU leaders’ summit. Where once Merkel commanded the floor and had other leaders practically queuing up to kiss her hand, this time it was she who came with the begging bowl, and all but implored her colleagues to find a solution to the immigration problem that could save her political skin. Gone was the confident chancellor, usually front and centre in photographs in her usual pose: eyes straight ahead, hands clasped in front of her. Instead, she looked away.
The cause of Merkel’s woe is Horst Seehofer — Interior Minister and leader of her Bavarian sister party, the CSU (Christian Social Union). Seehofer has openly defied the chancellor and threatened to close the Bavarian borders. He threatened to begin the repatriation of failed asylum seekers if she did not find a solution in Brussels.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Merkel was held to ransom by Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s new Prime Minister, over his demands for a tougher immigration policy. Merkel gave in. That is telling. In 2011, she effectively caused the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi when she refused to give more money to his spendthrift administration.
Yet, after an all-nighter, the leaders seemingly took the first steps towards a European solution on refugees.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party and the CSU are scheduled to meet today to discuss it, and the future of their partnership. But it looks as though, for now, the 63-year-old has a stay of execution.
It wasn’t always this way. Once, Merkel was Queen of Europe. Her personal story is formidable — she rose from obscurity in East Germany to become one of the most powerful women in history. Back then, she was a 30-something divorcee, working on her doctorate in quantum chemistry and dating fellow scientist Joachim Sauer (now her husband). Her father, Pastor Horst Kessler, disapproved of her bohemian lifestyle. The fact that she had lived as a squatter was not, he thought, becoming for a clergyman’s daughter.
Yet, within a year, she managed to go from research chemist to cabinet minister, before taking over as CDU leader from her mentor, Helmut Kohl.
History will record her role in averting the worst economic crisis since 1929. When the world’s financial system faced meltdown in 2008, Merkel read the public mood, and limited bankers’ bonuses. “I must do what I must,” she told me at a press conference that year. The use of the personal pronoun was not incidental.
Hers has been an impressive career in other ways, too. The fluent Russian speaker, who grew up in Communist East Germany, stood up to Vladimir Putin when the Russian strongman waged war by proxy in Ukraine, and was instrumental in kicking the former KGB man out of the G8. In those days, she governed with effortless ease. When my American publisher insisted that my biography have the subtitle ‘Europe’s Most Influential Leader’, I had no choice but to accept. For, as the editor asked: “Who else?” When the book was published in Bulgaria a couple of weeks ago, that subtitle was gone. So where did it all start to go wrong for Mutti?
One major wobble came after last September’s elections, when the CDU polled the lowest number of votes in its history — losing many to the Far-Right. In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise election victory in America in November 2016, Merkel had been feted as “the moral leader of the West”. Rumour has it that she only decided to run for re-election after Trump won; that she alone could stem the tide of Trumpism. This proved not to be the case. It took four months before Merkel was able to enter into a grand coalition and save her seat. But her position had been weakened.
It is too simplistic to cite the refugee crisis in 2015 as the beginning of her downfall. Germany was always split over taking in close to one million refugees.
Yet, the issue has become totemic for Merkel. Before 2015, she had never visited a refugee centre, but suddenly she was speaking passionately about the duty to “love thy neighbour”. Once, public opinion was on her side. Now 62 per cent support Seehofer.
Her predicament is not unlike that of Theresa May. The British Prime Minister suffers the indignity of being undermined by outspoken Cabinet colleagues, who brief against her and conduct their own private policy with scant regard for collective responsibility — let alone the interests of their boss. But just as May cannot sack Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary, Merkel is no longer politically strong enough to show Seehofer the door.
The two used to emphasise that they were “vicars’ daughters who get on with the job” — as Merkel said when the women met after the Brexit vote in 2016. Back then, both were seen as pragmatic politicians, unburdened by ideology. Since then, politics has been turned on its head, and we have entered a new era of the bold, brash and “out there” statesman — Trump and Emmanuel Macron leading the way. The current climate calls for action, not procrastination.
Merkel once had a sureness of touch; able to surf the zeitgeist and present herself as the embodiment of German public opinion. She had a knack for winning elections and successfully transformed a lacklustre Christian party.
She might yet survive as chancellor. She might try to engineer a transfer of power to her preferred successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU general secretary. But this could be difficult. Once, Merkel controlled the party and politicians were seeking to be anointed by her. That was then. This is now. It might well be time to say, “Auf Wiedersehen, Mutti” (goodbye mum).
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Matthew Qvortrup is the author of Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader.