Tuesday 20 March 2018

The softer Iron Lady

politics Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka Wiley, £19.99, hbk, 214 pages

Mary O'Rourke

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

This book is absolutely fascinating. If I had my way, it would be on the curriculum in secondary schools and third-level institutions all over Ireland. Why? Because Germany is the powerhouse of Europe, because we hope to continue to be an integral part of European affairs, and because Angela Merkel is the key player.

The book has particular relevance right now, of course, because tomorrow Chancellor Merkel is facing her third general election in Germany. But it is also relevant because the story of Angela Merkel is essentially the story of modern Germany.

Angela was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a school teacher mother living in East Germany under Soviet rule in a small town called Templin. The book has a chilling reminder of what life was like in East Germany during the time of the secret police, the Stasi.

A gifted student in school, Angela had gone on to study science. "Learning really was fine for me," she says. Her favourite subjects were English and Russian, but she was fascinated with physics.

On finishing her studies at the end of the 1970s, she applied for an assistant professor's post at an engineering school. Before she would be allowed to take the job, however, Stasi officers demanded she sign up to inform on her fellow teachers in the school. She refused and the job was given to someone else.

It's a telling reminder of how communist East Germany was run, with the Stasi infiltrating everywhere and forcing people to watch their fellow workers and inform on them about any "suspect" behaviour or opinions. Of course, the refusal stood to her later because if she had worked for the Stasi it would have made it impossible for her to forge a political career in the reunited Germany.

In spite of this, Angela actually began her political career before reunification, briefly serving as a spokesperson for the East German government. Eastern Europe was already crumbling and just a year later, following German reunification in 1990, she was elected to the Bundestag.

The chancellor, Helmut Kohl, the architect of reunification, became her mentor, and through him she moved up the political ladder, becoming minister for women, then minister for the environment, before eventually becaming party leader and the first female German chancellor. She is the first female leader of Europe's biggest economy, the first from the former communist East Germany and the first born after World War II.

Along the way, she showed her steel. When a funding scandal had engulfed Kohl, Merkel was not afraid to plunge in the knife. Early on, she took to bank bashing in Germany and she found that it stood her well in her domestic politics. In 2009, her government introduced an amendment to the constitution that locked in a debt brake obliging the federal government and state governments to balance their budgets. The cautious physicist was ever at work.

She was also a pragmatist – changing her coalition parties and changing her policies, such as switching swiftly from nuclear energy to renewables when it was politically the right move to make.

US President Barack Obama says of her, "she is smart, practical and I trust her when she says something".

In her domestic politics she has insisted that Germany remain an export-led economy, a country that makes things and is a centre of industrial excellence. Never short of courage, she visited Greece at the height of the austerity there where 40,000 gathered to march against her.

Interestingly Merkel's role model is Catherine the Great of Russia, who ruled for 34 years. She admires Catherine because she was courageous, and an accomplished and clever strategist.

Merkel has seen off premiers all over Europe. Her nickname in Berlin political circles is 'Mutti', or mother, because of her maternal ways, even though she is actually childless. Der Spiegel wrote that "the term 'Mutti' manages to combine respect, subservience and insult in one".

Her governing style of Mutti politics is sometimes derided in Germany as bringing politics down to the level of trying to please everyone. But she remains hugely popular and trusted. (On a personal note I smiled at the 'Mutti' reference because commentators here seeking to deride/praise me often called me 'Mammy O'Rourke' and I always thought how bad is that?)

As the authors tell us, in the years since the euro crisis she has moved on from being a Mutti to being a matriarchal figure with absolute power over her household – her party and her coalition. And her sway over other European leaders has strengthened this position. The authors cite her greatest strengths as a cool head, an ability to laugh and a willingness to listen to other viewpoints. For Europe, she was successful in putting forward her fiscal pact and her next goal is a European Competitiveness Pact, but not until after the election.

She also has unmatched durability. In the last chapter, the authors point out that: "More than three years after the debt crisis began, her policies have changed the face of Europe and underscored her endurance. She is one of the last pre-crisis government leaders still standing – euro-area leaders disappeared in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia." But she is still there.

This book is an instructive read, not just about crisis-torn Europe but about Germany and the woman Angela Merkel herself. Read it and enjoy, as we all await the results of tomorrow's general election in Germany.

Mary O'Rourke is a former Fianna Fáil minister.

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment