December 14, 2012 5:05 pm

Angela Merkel: a woman of power

In this exclusive interview, the German chancellor opens up about why she went into politics and reveals her wry sense of humour
Angela Merkel©Kai Wiedenhoefer

For a woman who is seen around the world as a disciplinarian, given to lecturing her European partners on the dangers of drowning in debt, the most surprising thing about Angela Merkel is her irrepressible sense of humour. It is hardly something you would expect from the chancellor of Germany when she greets you at the door of her office with a businesslike handshake and marches you smartly to a plain working table, boasting no more than a pot of coffee to serve to her guests.

The former scientist – daughter of a Protestant clergyman, brought up under communist rule in East Germany, who now dominates not only the domestic politics of her reunited homeland but also the interminable crisis-management of the EU – is cool and controlled. She thinks carefully before answering questions, and weighs all her words.

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In countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain in southern Europe, where drastic austerity measures are blamed on the German chancellor, she has been lampooned by furious demonstrators as a jackbooted Nazi. Yet in northern Europe she is respected in many countries – including neighbouring France – above their own domestic politicians, according to a recent survey.

She appears not to notice either way. She is called a Machtfrau in Germany – a woman of power – who has managed to get to the top as an outsider in a male-dominated world, removing all her potential rivals on the way and now revelling in popularity ratings ahead of any other politician in the land. But she does not spell out big visions, and she does not make emotional speeches.

Her favourite expression is “step by step”. “There is no alternative” is another. And for the past three years her catchphrase has been: “If the euro fails, then Europe will fail.” Fixing the crisis in the eurozone has become the touchstone of her entire political career. It is a historic challenge, but she tackles it as a fundamental scientific problem to be solved, stubbornly and consistently. “There is no big bazooka,” she insisted, when David Cameron, UK prime minister, unwisely called for one. The debt crisis took years to take shape, and it will take years to resolve, she says. “Step by step”.

She was described in a profile last week in the left-leaning magazine Der Spiegel – no great admirer of conservative politicians – as “relentlessly matter-of-fact”. It suits her public image, always dressed in the same combination of buttoned-up coloured blazers and trousers. She does not pay much attention to fashion, either.

Yet the laughter lines round her eyes betray a constant temptation to see the funny side of life.

. . .

In her office, overlooking a windswept square at the Reichstag in central Berlin, I congratulate the chancellor on her overwhelming re-election as party leader by her Christian Democratic Union – with almost 98 per cent of the vote at the annual party conference in Hanover.

It was very nice and unexpected, she says. No, she wasn’t exactly embarrassed. She was “flabbergasted”.

But when I suggest that many politicians dread their party conferences and would do anything to stay away, she comes back quick as a flash: “Well, that is rather difficult when you are party chairman.” A very straight look from those clear grey eyes, and the hint of a grin.

Her humour can be mischievous. According to those who know her best, she is a brilliant mimic, delighted to take off (in private) other politicians and world leaders she knows, such as Nicolas Sarkozy, former French president, or Barack Obama.

“She has a very dry sense of humour,” says her biographer Margaret Heckel. “In private, she can be extremely funny. She can entertain a whole room by herself.”

Merkel can also use her sense of the ridiculous to devastating effect. Last year, when she was asked at a press conference in Brussels if she “trusted” Silvio Berlusconi, then Italian prime minister, she said nothing, but simply raised her eyes to the ceiling. She turned with an impish smile to Sarkozy, beside her, who giggled – and then she delivered a careful diplomatic response. Berlusconi resigned six days later.

No one seriously disputes that Merkel is today the most powerful politician in Europe. Forbes magazine just declared her the second most powerful figure in the world, after President Obama. She is suitably self-deprecating. As head of government of the biggest economy in Europe, that naturally gives a certain weight to her decisions, she says. But she doesn’t take such polls too seriously. They are not relevant to her political activity, she says, grinning again.

Angela Merkel with Barack Obama and other world leaders at the Nato summit in Chicago in May©John Gress/Getty Images

With Barack Obama and other world leaders at the Nato summit in Chicago in May

After seven years in office as German chancellor, and 12 as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel is at the height of her power. She is the first woman to hold either of those jobs, to the constant amazement of the men she has overtaken in the process. She is the third longest-serving leader after Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, and Andrus Ansip of Estonia.

“The Anglo-Saxon world does not understand her, and has never rated her as a result,” says Peter Ludlow, historian of the European Council in Brussels. “But people slowly realise she has been around for a long time, and pulls all the strings.”

It is not simply experience that is the secret of her influence. “It helps if you are the most intelligent person at the table, and also much the best prepared,” says a senior former European ambassador. That is a quality she shares with Margaret Thatcher, a fellow scientist (Baroness Thatcher studied chemistry, Merkel studied physics). But the chancellor does not relish such comparisons. She is much less ideologically conservative, and much less strident, than her British predecessor.

. . .

Merkel was born in Hamburg, West Germany in 1954, the eldest daughter of Horst and Herlind Kasner. Her father came from Berlin, her mother from Silesia, in what is now Poland. But her father was asked to move from the capitalist west to the communist east because of a shortage of clergymen there. His daughter was just six weeks old.

Her upbringing in the east, and her scientist training, are the two elements which make her different, and so successful, as a politician. “She is very suspicious,” says Heckel. “Maybe that can be traced back to her background as an East German. Growing up in a dictatorship, what people talked about in private in their homes was often totally different to what was said in public.”

Angela Merkel with her mother, Herlind, and late father, Horst©Sipa Press/Rex Features

With her mother, Herlind, and late father, Horst

To this day, the chancellor keeps her private life just that: private. Of course, she was influenced by her father and mother, she says tartly. We all are. But she doesn’t think her father’s influence was decisive. She got her sense of humour from her mother. What she remembers most fondly about home life was that work and family were combined in one place. Her father didn’t leave home for the office. Adult conversation would have been very much part of the children’s life. The empty, lake-strewn landscape of the Uckermark, around Templin, is still where she feels most at home.

At school she was always top of the class and won prizes for Russian. She joined the Freie Deutsche Jugend – the communist youth league. For some conservatives in her own party, that remains a source of suspicion to this day.

In 1977, aged 23, she married a fellow student, Ulrich Merkel, and they moved to East Berlin, but the marriage broke up in 1981. She has kept his name, although she has been with her present husband, Joachim Sauer, since 1984. They have no children of their own, but he has two grown-up sons from his previous marriage. He is a distinguished quantum chemist and professor, but he seldom appears at functions with his wife, although they both attend the Wagner music festival in Bayreuth every year, and take walking holidays in the Tyrol.

One of Merkel’s former close advisers says that the greatest pleasure of working with the chancellor is that she wants to understand problems fundamentally – and not just what she needs to know to survive another week in politics. She is also formidably hard-working, texting messages before breakfast and well after dinner. She can often be seen fumbling in her handbag to find her handy (German for a mobile phone) in the middle of Bundestag debates.

Yet for all that is known about her, Angela Merkel remains an enigma, both in Berlin and Brussels.

. . .

What is the secret of this chancellor who must live with the constant reproach that she is a woman without political passions?” asked Berthold Kohler, columnist with the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, after her triumphant re-election at the party conference in Hanover.

Angela Merkel arriving with husband Joachim Sauer at the Bayreuth opera festival last summer©Getty

Arriving with husband Joachim Sauer at the Bayreuth opera festival last summer

The question clearly riles Merkel. It is up to observers to decide for themselves, she says. Anyone can recognise what her political “themes” are: she does not use the word “passions”. The challenge of globalisation is one, and the need for more competitiveness – especially in Europe – to meet it.

She begins to open up, looking back to that extraordinary moment when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. “The end of the cold war had a huge impact on my life. It marked the triumph of freedom over dictatorship.” It was precisely what she saw in the collapse of communist rule in the German Democratic Republic that has shaped her thinking since then. “We witnessed in the GDR and in the entire socialist system that an economy which was no longer competitive was denying people prosperity and ultimately leading to great instability.”

Was that why she went into politics? Not exactly. She had never been a very active participant in the “civic movement” that overthrew the communist order. When the Wall came down, she went to the sauna. According to her own account, when she turned up at the party offices of Democratic Awakening (one of the more conservative church-based movements formed at the time), she made herself useful by linking up their computers. No one else could understand how to make western computers work with the eastern ones.

She went into politics, she says, because she was convinced that eastern Germany needed more people in parliament who had never been politically active. She was also bowled over by the experience. “I found it exciting to be a member of the first parliament of a reunited Germany. Being a freely elected member of the German Bundestag, perhaps making a speech, was a big step for me. I didn’t think at the time about what might follow.”

She certainly did not dream of becoming German chancellor. She was offered a junior job in the cabinet by Helmut Kohl, the chancellor, who was looking for eastern faces, and referred to her disparagingly as “das Mädchen” – the girl. She did not take it amiss, because she was used to male chauvinism in the east, she once said. According to Gerd Langguth, another Merkel biographer and professor of politics at Bonn university, Merkel told a friend at the time: “I hope I don’t get that dreadful women’s job.” She did: she became minister for women and youth. “She was not amused,” says Langguth.

At the time, as an East German, she might well have seen no need for a “women’s policy”. After all, in the GDR, 89 per cent of adult women worked, compared with just 55 per cent in the west. Ever since, Merkel has suffered from the charge that she is unsympathetic to a much more proactive women’s policy. In recent months, she has been sharply criticised by women – in her own party and the opposition – on at least two fronts: for opposing an EU initiative to set a legal quota for women company directors; and for endorsing a conservative move by the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union – sister-party of her own CDU – to introduce a better system of childcare allowances for mothers who stay at home with their children.

Merkel rejects the criticisms, reeling off several initiatives, including the guarantee of a nursery place to all children under three, due next August. So why did she oppose an initiative in the European parliament to block the appointment of a man – Yves Mersch of Luxembourg – to the executive board of the European Central Bank? There is not a single woman on the board, or on the governing council of the ECB.

“Mersch has the qualifications which the ECB so urgently needs,” she says. Why should he be dropped just because he is not a woman? “In Germany, the Bundesbank vice-president is female, as is the head of the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority. These examples show that women are already occupying top-level posts, and that more have to follow in their footsteps.” Indeed, she declares that when the new European banking supervisor is set up – part of a European banking union, still being negotiated by EU finance ministers – there will be more top jobs for women.

The answer is not to set legal quotas, she says, but to promote more women to middle-ranking roles so they will be ready to step up to top jobs, before reeling off the number of women state secretaries – junior ministers – in her own government: six or seven, where before there were none.

On the other big issue of women’s policy in Germany – whether to set statutory or voluntary quotas for women on company boards – Merkel also seems to be shifting her ground. At the Hanover conference she declared she was beginning to lose patience with the lack of voluntary action from the private sector. If they do not respond faster, she says, there will have to be legislation.

Merkel’s critics see her wavering on issues such as women’s policy as a classic indication of her lack of profound political convictions, combined with an acute tactical sense that stops her from spelling out too much policy detail before she knows it can be delivered. Kurt Lauk, chairman of the CDU business council, has long condemned her refusal to spell out her policies (and passions) more clearly, especially on her crisis-management of the eurozone. “On Europe, she is never concrete. It is both her strength and her weakness,” he says. “She doesn’t explain where she wants to go, but she pushes behind the scenes in the right direction. So nobody is convinced.

“She has pushed Europe into a structural reform programme of unprecedented proportions, but at the same time there is no vision of where to go. She will be measured by the vision.”

Yet it is precisely Merkel’s step-by-step approach to stemming the crisis in the eurozone that seems to appeal to German voters and is likely to help her in next September’s general election. “She tops the opinion polls precisely because of her European policy,” says a European ambassador in Berlin. “She manages to be both pro-European, and seen to be defending Germany’s interests. That is what German voters want. From an election point of view, she needs the eurozone crisis to carry on.”

Thanks to Merkel’s popularity at home, her party is running some nine points ahead of the main opposition Social Democrats. In terms of personal popularity, 60 per cent are happy with her, against 48 per cent for her main challenger, Peer Steinbrück.

Yet Merkel does not have an obvious coalition partner: the liberal FDP is running below 5 per cent, the minimum to win any seats in the Bundestag. So she may be forced into a “grand coalition” with the SPD, or an untested alliance with the environmentalist Green party. Both would be difficult. Merkel does not entirely rule out either.

She is acutely conscious that German politics are all about consensus and coalition-building. That is one reason why she avoids committing herself too soon to policies she may not be able to deliver. It is infuriating, but effective. She learnt from Helmut Kohl to “sit out” interminable debates until a consensus emerges.

“Social cohesion is very important to people in Germany. Our federal system means that in Germany competences are distributed between the federal level and the Länder [the 16 federal states]. Although that sometimes makes politics arduous, it’s also one of our country’s strengths, namely the ability to find good solutions to problems, and for Germany, across party lines.”

It is a system that means political parties are not automatically seen as the enemy, because they may always end up as potential partners. From the GDR, she learnt to camouflage her inner feelings, says Gerd Langguth, and it also left her with a deep dislike of ideology of any sort.

She has a very narrow circle of true confidantes, referred to scathingly by (male) media commentators as “the girls’ camp”. The most important members are Beate Baumann, head of her private office since 1992, and Eva Christiansen, once CDU spokesperson, and now a key adviser.

Margaret Heckel believes that the chancellor’s background as a scientist is what makes her different to her fellow politicians. “She thinks further ahead and works out what the options are, much more than other politicians. She really tries to be prepared for all possible options. I don’t know any male politicians who work like this.”

The chancellor insists that she still enjoys the political process. What’s fun about politics? “Not knowing in the morning what will happen in the evening. The fact that events are constantly confronting you with new situations. You meet new people all the time, and I’m very interested in people. The only thing that I used to dislike about being a scientist was not having much opportunity to speak to others during the day.”

Her other passion in politics is “solving problems… with goodwill, and some creativity”.

Angela Merkel is still seen as “the girl from the east” by many of the men who used to dominate her party. She is an outsider who never worked her way up through the party system. She has no grassroots base. “She is respected, not loved,” says Langguth. “The day she loses as chancellor, she will probably be pushed out as party leader very quickly.”

But for now, she is the Machtfrau, but with an acute sense of the limitations of her power. “Power is relative in Germany’s political system,” she says. “Everything is based on the power to convince others. I have to constantly convince citizens, my party and my coalition partners.”

That is another reason why she is so effective at European politics, too. She never gives up, and never regards a setback as a defeat.

Quentin Peel is the FT’s chief correspondent in Germany.

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