| 16.3°C Dublin

Catherine O'Mahony: 'Blowhard Boris should stop, listen and learn that 'Mam' Merkel knows best how to be a real grown-up'


Leadership: German Chancellor Angela Merkel treads softly but has a firm grip when it is needed. Photo: Reuters

Leadership: German Chancellor Angela Merkel treads softly but has a firm grip when it is needed. Photo: Reuters


Leadership: German Chancellor Angela Merkel treads softly but has a firm grip when it is needed. Photo: Reuters

Today starts with a more upbeat tone to Brexit talks but it's been a shouty week in politics overall as Brexiteers ratcheted up their Us versus Them narrative after an allegedly tetchy exchange between Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel, It has made me wonder what Merkel really ought to have told Britain's rambunctious leader.

It's sometimes difficult, amid all the recriminations and finger-pointing, to remember that such politicians exist as Germany's quiet and resolute chancellor. In the black and white worlds of boy-leaders like Boris 'n' Donald, her unshowy manner and modest resolve seem almost quaint.

It made it all the weirder when someone in Downing Street (the much-quoted unnamed "source") this week tried to turn Merkel into some kind of stage villain in the Brexit pantomime by insisting her intransigent attitude during her private phone conversation with Johnson made a deal "essentially impossible, not just now, but ever".

Merkel, according to this narrative, belligerently stood up to Boris and brooked no debate at all. The thing is, this is a version of Merkel that nobody with any sense could accept as realistic. She is known to be co-operative. She doesn't play games. Originally an east German outsider to western German politics, her style of rhetoric evolved from years of building bridges, not from play fighting in debating halls at Oxford.

No wonder EU Council President Donald Tusk tweeted in exasperation at Boris Johnson: "What's at stake is not winning some stupid blame game."

Cue an outburst of inevitable Westminster craziness.

As the rest of us wait to see how this whole circus plays itself out, and deal with the acutely painful repercussions for us economically and socially if a no-deal Brexit results, I can't help wishing that Merkel really had let fly at Boris Johnson. He could learn so much from her. She wouldn't even need to confine herself to Brexit and the Border.

She'd have gems to impart on how he might revise his whole blowhard, chaotic political persona. How to be a leader.

Merkel could have told him, for instance to be a bit kinder. Merkel cares about Germans. Many feel this. It has made them loyal to her. Even when she seriously missed a step in 2015 with what proved to be a wildly overenthusiastic embrace of waves of new immigrants from Syria, they somehow remembered this was the case. It's no accident her nickname for many years was "Mutti", which loosely translates to "Mam".

She is, of course, very much the sort of Mam whose word, when it comes to it, is final. She wields a power that comes from trust. From compromise. From listening. Oddly enough, these are the very things hyper-masculine Boris appears to find so tiresome.

Merkel could equally have advised him to be more cautious. Risk aversion - the thing most anathema to a bruiser-style politician like Boris - has long been Angela Merkel's trademark.

She has told the story of how, as a child, she went to diving classes but spent the first hour debating with herself on the diving board whether or not to take the plunge.

Eventually, the bell rang for the end of class. At that moment, she dove. But not before she had assessed the pros and cons of her actions to a degree others might find unreasonable.

She's still the same, it seems, in life as well as politics. She doesn't even inhabit the glitzy apartment in Berlin reserved for her; she continues to share her and her husband's own city flat instead. And we have no idea what that looks like because nobody but her friends have been there.

We've also hardly ever even seen her husband, Joachim Sauer, who is a physicist with his own life to lead.

If you find all of this an unfashionable way to proceed, you'd be right; it's even boring. But, oh, it's been effective.

And then there's the methodical thing. Merkel is a scientist by training - she was a chemist working at a state-run research centre in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 - and it shows.

It's a part of her legend that even on the day the Wall fell she went for her weekly sauna rather than join the crowds in celebration. Asked about this she said once: "It was Thursday and Thursday was my sauna day so that's where I went… I figured if the Wall had opened, it was hardly going to close again."

These days she is renowned for arriving at every meeting meticulously prepared. She knows her stuff. She doesn't wing it. In the words of the kindergarten, she shows rather than tells. Would that Mr Johnson would occasionally take her lead.

Finally, Merkel might have advised, Boris could try thinking before speaking. It would not be for Merkel to take fire at people like eco-activists, as Boris did last week when he labelled them "importunate nose-ringed climate change protesters" and "denizens of heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs". (You can never knock Boris's vocabulary, to be fair.)

And yet, good leadership, as Merkel declared in a recent speech at Leipzig university, "doesn't mean pursuing one's own goals and interests without consideration of others but instead keeping in mind the bigger picture".

She added, wisely: "Without compromise, society cannot hold together."

Touché, Frau Merkel. Tell that to Dominic Cummings as well, while you're at it. Not that Merkel ever would, more's the pity. She is instead quietly looking on - her expression as always, hard to read - as her beloved European project comes under increasingly erratic fire from a leader who appears to have lost all sense of what it means to be a grown-up, not to mention what it takes to show mature and measured leadership.

Her era is, of course, coming to an end with her now nearly 14-year tenure as German chancellor expected to finish in 2021. Even if she did truly challenge Boris, he'd probably dismiss it all as an "inverted pyramid of piffle" (which is what he said about tabloid reports of an affair he had in 2004 that turned out to be true).

And Boris Johnson is, naturally, not without his merry band of combative supporters. Someone from the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign went so far as to tweet a picture of Angela Merkel to accompany a rousing rejoinder to those pesky Europeans that said: "We didn't win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut."

'Leave EU' subsequently regretted the tweet, showing a rare capacity for reflection. A first apology, but very probably not its last.

Irish Independent