Why power suits Angela Merkel

With a firm economy and weak opponents, the muted Angela Merkel may be Europe’s most powerful leader

Keystone Press Agency; Getty Images; Redux; CP

When Angela Merkel began her chancellorship of Germany eight years ago, few thought she’d still be around today. She had almost lost the 2005 election to incumbent Gerhard Schröder, whose blowhard personality contrasted sharply with her more placid persona. It seemed she had squeaked into office with a large dose of luck.

Now, following a decisive electoral victory on Sunday, Merkel is poised to serve a third term, putting her among exclusive company in German political history, and bolstering the argument that she is the most powerful person in Europe.

The German job market is strong; Merkel’s political opponents are weak. She has outlasted many of her European colleagues who were in power when she began her chancellorship. And if she finishes this four-year term, she will have been in power longer than even the woman to whom she is occasionally compared: Britain’s iron lady, Margaret Thatcher.

Merkel showed Thatcher-like steel early in her career when, in 1999, she publicly turned against her one-time mentor, former chancellor Helmut Kohl, a man who used to call her “little girl,” when it emerged he channelled donations into a slush fund for his friends.

The steel is still there. And those who know Merkel say she can be quietly ruthless. But since then, she has shown little of that visible brashness.

“She’s not a revolutionary. She’s not someone who comes out and says, ‘I’m going to change this country,’ ” says Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, the European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Merkel’s goals for the rest of Europe are also muted. Her neighbours don’t feel threatened. Some, in fact, wish a Merkel-run Germany would assume greater leadership of the continent. In a remarkable speech for a Polish foreign minister a couple of years ago, Radoslaw Sikorski called Germany the “indispensible nation” and said he feared German power less than German inactivity.

It’s true that Greek protesters, angered by austerity measures demanded by Germany to combat the ongoing financial crisis, carry placards depicting Merkel as a Hitler-mustachioed Nazi. But this characterization feels even more cartoonish than it might if applied to other German leaders. Merkel’s ego and desire for power, like almost everything else about her, is restrained.

Germans admire but don’t really love her for it. Merkel inspires neither rage nor passion—only trust. And that has been the secret to her success.

“She acts like a mother, but without a man at her side,” says Gero Neugebauer, an analyst at the Free University of Berlin. (Merkel’s husband, chemist Joachim Sauer, keeps a low public profile.) “People believe, ‘Okay, she protects us. I want to stay under her umbrella.’ ”

The storm from which Germans sought shelter during Merkel’s most recent term in office was the European financial crisis. Rising government debt among some members of the eurozone threatens their ability to remain solvent, and called into question the eurozone’s future. A number of bailout programs financed by wealthier members of the eurozone—most notably Germany—sought to keep the economies of countries such as Greece and Portugal afloat, with the condition that they enact far-reaching economic reforms.

Germany, despite financing much of the bailout process, has prospered since. The country appears to be a comparatively stable island in a sea of financial unrest. The results elsewhere on the continent are mixed, but they could have been much worse, says Techau.

“Look at the horror scenario that we were reading about just two years ago: complete destruction of the euro; perhaps even an unravelling of the European integration process; Greece out; public unrest in the streets. None of this has happened.

“What we’ve seen instead is crisis management—often very painful, often flawed, but halfway effective. The Greeks are still in; the euro is still there; the economy still runs. [Merkel] has achieved a lot. She was the principal architect of this, and so she deserves some credit.”

Managing Europe, and Germany’s relationship with it, will continue to dominate Merkel’s chancellorship. Almut Möller, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says Merkel believes Germany’s global success depends on the competitiveness of the continent as a whole.

But the idea of actually leading Europe still makes many Germans uneasy, says Jürgen Neyer, a European politics professor at European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder).

“It’s got very much to do with the German past,” he says, referring to two world wars and the Holocaust. “We can’t trust ourselves. We have no reason to be sure that we would not slide back into past things if we had the chance to do so.”

Germans therefore believe their country must be deeply integrated into Europe, but would prefer that someone else call the shots. “We, of course, want that everybody else does what we say—but not officially,” says Neyer. “We don’t want to be pushed into that role. We are afraid of that responsibility.”

Until now, at least, Merkel has reflected this mindset. She’s offered no long-term vision for Germany’s place in the world, preferring instead to manage the present and make incremental adjustments to how Germany is governed. There’s a chance this may change slightly as Merkel begins what will almost certainly be her final term. She has a strong mandate and may want to leave a legacy beyond a record of competence. Möller believes Germany will also face increasing pressure from its allies to take a more active role in the world, especially militarily.

But before Merkel can plot any sort of agenda for the next four years, she needs to reach out to an opposing political party and negotiate forming a coalition. Despite winning more than 41 per cent of the popular vote, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, fell just short of an absolute majority of seats in the Bundestag. Merkel’s preferred partner on the right, the Free Democratic Party, failed to win the five per cent of the vote necessary to hold seats.

This means Merkel will likely try to form a “grand coalition” with the CDU’s main rival on the left, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which finished the election second. A similar CDU-SPD coalition governed Germany from 2005 to 2009. There are risks to the SPD in joining such a coalition again; it’s difficult to differentiate yourself from the governing party when you are in a partnership with it. The SPD’s popular vote and seat count both declined sharply in 2009, following its inclusion in the first Merkel grand coalition.

On the other hand, the SPD is now positioned to extract concessions from the CDU as a price for joining with them. Sabine von Oppeln, an analyst at the Free University of Berlin’s Center for European Integration, suspects these will focus on social policies, such as a national minimum wage.

But here, too, von Oppeln says, the SPD must be careful to keep credit for any initiatives it introduces. Merkel has a habit of adopting her opponents’ ideas when they are popular. Her critics might accuse her of opportunism. She would likely retort that she is being prudent and pragmatic—which, it now seems ever more clear, is what Germans want.