Sunday 24 June 2018

Steady as she goes: the tenacious Angela Merkel

As Brexit looms and Trump reigns, is it any wonder that most Germans appear unwilling to part from their longstanding Chancellor Merkel? Our reporter profiles a leader whose power is understated, but emphatic

Heading for a fourth term: Chanellor Angela Merkel
Heading for a fourth term: Chanellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his then-newly elected Minister for Women, Angela Merkel, at a CDU party meeting in 2001
A protester wears a badge with the slogal "Merkel muss weg!" ("Merkel must go!") during a demonstration in Hauptbahnhof last November
Merkel with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his dog Koni in 2007
Social Democrats Party SPD leader and candidate for Chancellor Martin Schulz

Catherine O'Mahony

'I have the necessary strength and I am still curious - about people and about how life and the country are changing, and about the challenges that politics present. I think that is decisive, that you don't think you already know everything."

This was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's characteristically low-key response when asked recently by Spiegel magazine why she decided to seek the leadership in Germany's September 24 elections, having already been at the helm for 12 full years.

This tendency to underplay herself may well be why Merkel seems destined - according to all the latest polls - to prevail in her bid for a fourth term in office, a feat that would match the post-war record of her one-time mentor Helmut Kohl. The latest polls estimate support for Merkel's CDU/CSU alliance at 37 to 39pc, with biggest rival the SPD - whose leader Martin Schulz has failed to capitalise on a promising start - on just 21/22pc. Barring a major reversal, a CDU-led coalition of some kind is in sight, most realistically either with the SPD or with the FDP and the Greens.

Merkel is stoic, unchanging, reliable, consistent. She does not do drama, or extremes, or even charm, in the conventional sense. There are no personal tweets, or photo-opps of her fitness routine. She can be warm - she was overheard telling Enda Kenny on his arrival in Berlin earlier this year to "come in - I missed you" - but is not effusive. And her election slogan "For a Germany where we will live well, and happily" - really says nothing at all.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his then-newly elected Minister for Women, Angela Merkel, at a CDU party meeting in 2001
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his then-newly elected Minister for Women, Angela Merkel, at a CDU party meeting in 2001

There's one weakness, however, that she struggles to hide - she is afraid of dogs. This fact became apparent in 2007 when she met Vladimir Putin, who duly brought his black labrador in to join them. Merkel was visibly terrified when the dog approached her.

"I'm sure it will behave itself," Putin said.

Later, Merkel is reported to have commented on Putin's behaviour. "I understand why he has to do this - to prove he's a man. He's afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.'"

Really, in the end, the incident served to reinforce one indisputable fact: Angela Merkel is not easily intimidated. Nor does she have a whole lot of time for bringing the personal sphere into politics.

Indeed you could argue she often appears to have no private sphere whatsoever (although she does of course; she has a husband Joachim Sauer who is a scientist but who rarely shows up at public events).

Approval rating

A protester wears a badge with the slogal
A protester wears a badge with the slogal "Merkel muss weg!" ("Merkel must go!") during a demonstration in Hauptbahnhof last November

It seems she has ever been averse to drama. The day the Berlin Wall fell, it has been widely reported, the then 35-year-old Angela Merkel went for her weekly sauna rather than join the crowds in the celebrations. Why? "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."

Well, who can argue?

And in these days of hurricanes, Brexit and terrorism threats, when the US is ruled by an individual as comprehensively unpredictable as Donald Trump, it seems Germans have abandoned notions they may have entertained of breaking faith with Merkel as they head to the polls on September 24. True, her name has inspired a new German word "merkeln" (literally, to Merkel), meaning being indecisive, or just standing by and doing nothing.

But Merkel's personal approval rating is above 60pc; in fact it has never dipped below 46pc, even at the worst of the 2015/2016 crisis in Germany, when it seemed the country was seriously flagging in its efforts to cope with a massive influx of migrants.

Merkel was born Angela Kasner (her surname is that of her first husband, who she divorced in her 20s). Her first three decades were spent in the east, the German Democratic Republic, where her father was a pastor and her mother - who is still living and with whom she remains close, was a schoolteacher.

Originally she trained as a physicist. In her 30s she started helping out in the offices of the political party that would be subsumed into the CDU. She was appointed deputy press spokesperson for Lothar de Maizière, the only democratically elected prime minister of East Germany. Under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl - whose rather patronising pet name for her was 'Maedchen' (girl) - she became first Minister for Women and then environment minister, where she also dealt with nuclear reactor safety. When Kohl lost the parliamentary election in 1998, Wolfgang Schäuble, the new party chairman, made her general secretary. In 2000, Merkel was voted in as the new CDU leader, and in the parliamentary election in 2005 she was the main candidate for Chancellor. She has been forced into changing gear at times. After the nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011, Merkel did a volte-face on the topic, as she went from being a fervent supporter of nuclear power to an opponent. "We can't just go back to normality," she said after the accident. "Our nuclear facilities may be secure, but we need to take time to reflect on these events."

Merkel with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his dog Koni in 2007
Merkel with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his dog Koni in 2007

Then there's the whole car exhaust emissions scandal that's dragged in most of the large German car manufacturers - some of the most crucial employers in the country. This remains a headache for Merkel.

In 2015, Merkel encountered her greatest challenge - migrants. A humanitarian crisis threatened and tens of thousands of displaced people from Syria and other conflict zones began pressing for a way into the heart of Europe. And Merkel took a decision that nearly cost her career - she let them in.

Initially, it should not be forgotten, there was delight at this decision. Germans appreciate a chance to demonstrate how liberal and open they can be. Across Germany, people prepared for the influx with open arms - the scale of the volunteer effort was enormous. It all only started to go wrong when it became clear that Merkel was on her own in this welcome. The rest of the EU was not keen on a quota system for accepting asylum seekers. Germany's towns started to struggle to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of newcomers. Integration was slow. By the end of 2015, 890,000 asylum seekers had entered Germany, many without proper identity checks.

And Merkel's popularity started to fall, a fillip for anti-immigration parties like the Alternative für Deutschland (currently expected to secure as much as 10pc of the vote later this month).

It came to a head when, on New Year's Eve in Cologne in 2015, hundreds of women were sexually assaulted by groups of men - mostly described as being of North African or Arab origin. Thousands marched on the streets defending women's rights to proceed unmolested through their lives. The blame landed firmly on Merkel.

In September 2016, regional elections in Merkel's home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania gifted 20.8pc to the AfD.

For a time it truly seemed as though the jig was up. There was talk of a new leader from the ranks of the CDU, speculation that Schäuble, by then finance minister, would be brought in to serve as an interim chancellor. And yet slowly Merkel's popularity started to inch back up.

Political turmoil overseas boosted the draw of her solidity. The strength of the German economy was also part of the reason. Germany entered 2016 with a budget surplus of €12.1 bn and an AAA rating from credit rating agencies.

Also the floods of migrants slowed dramatically, partly due to a decision by Macedonia in early 2016 to shut its border with Greece.

Merkel herself negotiated a deal between the EU and Turkey to reduce the flow of migrants. In the end, about 280,000 arrived in Germany in 2016.

'Absolutely extraordinary'

Merkel still says that she did the morally correct thing in admitting so many refugees, while conceding matters got out of hand.

And so she stands, in 2017, with Britain negotiating its way out of the EU, as Europe's most powerful figure, and certainly its most experienced political leader. Unless the polls have made some cardinal error - a prospect that is hard to rule out given recent events in the US and Britain - she will remain in place for a few years more.

Canadian leader Justin Trudeau - nearly two decades younger than Merkel - is a fan. Asked in recent days about his view on the German leader he described her as "absolutely extraordinary".

Trudeau added that people used to joke about the thought of him sitting down with Merkel.

"Because, you know, she's thoughtful and serious and intellectual. And I've got a nice head of hair. Apparently."

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