Anyone wondering how Angela Merkel will handle this week’s tricky negotiations in Brussels should hear what Bono, the rock star Africa activist, had to say after the Group of Eight summit two weeks ago.
“Intellectually she gets this and emotionally understands this, but her political mindset is that of a coalition builder and I just got a sense she was held back by that.”
Many diplomats disagreed with his view of the G8 (a failure for Africa), but they said his assessment of the chancellor was spot-on: her command of diplomacy might also be her main weakness.
Ms Merkel’s track record as president of the G8 and the EU shows she is a realist who will go for a deal rather than risk failure by casting her demands in stone.
Both at home and abroad, she cultivates a refreshing unpretentious style. When not governing Europe’s largest economy, she cooks breakfast for her husband and buys her own milk at Ulrich, the no-frills discounter round the corner from her flat.
As EU president she has dispensed small acts of graciousness to her most hostile counterparts. At a concert celebrating 50 years of the union in Berlin last March, she sat Lech Kaczynski and Vaclav Klaus, two notorious eurosceptics suspicious of Germany, at her side.
As a negotiator, her sharp eye for the common ground, her capacity to break complex problems into manageable pieces, and her command of obscure but crucial technical details have gained her near-universal plaudits.
“She is the kind of personality who is very helpful in these circumstances,” said a veteran Nordic diplomat in Brussels. “She is someone who is prepared to find a solution and who is reasonable to everyone.”
Less commented on but equally remarkable has been her willingness to compromise. At her first EU summit as chancellor in December 2005 she engineered an agreement on the Union’s budget by raising Germany’s contribution.
At this year’s spring EU summit, focused on climate change, she got sceptics to submit to a binding emissions target by deferring a decision on how to spread the burden among member states.
She repeated the exercise at the G8 summit, persuading President George W. Bush of the US to bring his climate initiative under the umbrella of the Kyoto process while dropping her demand for measurable goals.
“The G8 climate deal was actually a fudge,” says a Berlin-based diplomat. “But the fact that there was a deal at all was still seen as a great success here.”
This is partly to do with Ms Merkel’s domestic circumstances as leader of a “grand coalition” of rival parties whose every decision is subject to negotiating marathons.
Opinion polls show German voters value the chancellor’s pragmatism. Instead of criticising her for making concessions, they praise her ability to make deals – even suboptimal ones. A survey published on Thursday showed 54 per cent would vote for her today, against 16 per cent for her main rival.
With 73 per cent valuing her work on the international stage, she faces formidable domestic expectations. Unlike other EU leaders who score domestically by playing tough in Brussels, the chancellor needs a deal to retain her heroic veneer.
Diplomats in Berlin, who are well aware of this pressure, say this may have encouraged the view among several member states that “Germany has a little more to offer”. No one would call her a pushover, says one, “but the fact is she needs a good headline”.
This may explain why senior German officials have been playing down the potential fallout from a failed summit lately, with one saying on Wednesday it would not be “the end of the world”.
But Ms Merkel knows German voters want a deal and will not scan its details with Bono’s critical eye. This gives her latitude in the negotiations, but it will make it harder for her to resist the demands of emboldened counterparts sitting at the table.