Angela Merkel: an instinct for power

Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis, by Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka, Wiley, RRP£19.99/Bloomberg Press, RRP$29.95, 214 pages

At home Angela Merkel is a remarkably popular politician. After eight years in office, the German chancellor enjoys the approval of two out of three voters. Yet very few can claim they know her.

Abroad, her image is more clouded. She is denounced by protesters across southern Europe as the mistress of excessive austerity, forced upon debt-strapped governments as the price of a bailout. Critics argue that her hesitation and constant manoeuvring to keep her domestic constituency happy have raised the cost of the eurozone crisis. But she is also widely admired as a single-minded leader who has anchored the eurozone through an existential crisis, and faced down financial speculators who were betting against the survival of the euro. Throughout, she has rejected quick fixes and insisted on fundamental reforms.

So which is the real Angela Merkel? Is she indecisive, or simply methodical? Is she hidebound by a narrow monetarist view that excess debt is the cause of all Europe’s problems, or is she quite ready to change course if the situation demands it? Is she determined to save the euro, even if that means alienating the mighty Bundesbank? Or would she ditch the common currency if it threatened her hold on power in Berlin?

The truth is that the most powerful woman in the world (according to the latest annual poll by Forbes magazine) is in many ways still an enigma.

On the one hand, she is constantly in the public eye, relaxed on a platform and easy with people. She can seem a bit stuffy, but she has a wicked sense of humour. She loves to pull faces about silly situations, to the occasional delight of photographers. Yet she protects her private life fiercely, seldom appears in public with her husband Joachim Sauer and hates posing for formal photographs. She does not talk readily about her background growing up as a Protestant pastor’s daughter under communism in East Germany. Nor does she ever seem comfortable talking about her inspiration as Europe’s most prominent political leader.

Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka, authors of a crisp new account of her role in the eurozone crisis, describe her as “the most unconventional chancellor of the postwar period” in Germany. “A political outsider from the outset, Germany’s first woman chancellor has made a career out of being misread and trivialised,” they write in Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis. It was a lesson she learnt from her political mentor, Helmut Kohl, who also got to the top by being underestimated by his rivals.

Written off because of her eastern origin, her uninspiring speaking style, even her pudding-basin haircut, Angela Merkel has outmanoeuvred all her rivals to dominate the German political scene. Today she is fighting her third election campaign as leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, with a very good chance of being re-elected chancellor for a third term, only one short of Kohl.

Crawford and Czuczka, correspondents with Bloomberg News in Berlin, focus on her chancellorship through the prism of the eurozone crisis. Drawing largely on their own reporting and published material, they include a few select interviews, including one with Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – and a critic of excessive German austerity. “She’s full of just downright common sense and she’s very approachable,” he says. “She listens, she asks questions, and she doesn’t seem to have all the answers. She may or may not like what you’re saying ... but she wants to listen. She wants the input, for the evidence.”

Gurría is not alone in alluding to Merkel’s training as a scientist as the key to understanding her approach to the eurozone crisis. It is a background shared with Margaret Thatcher, another outsider who rose to the top of a male-dominated political world. Merkel’s determination to proceed slowly – “step by step” is her mantra – infuriates her partners. But for Crawford and Czuczka, in the end it is her flexibility that has enabled Europe to weather the worst of the crisis.

The debt crisis in Greece was critical. Merkel began by insisting that the problem in Greece – soaring spreads on Greek government bonds – was for Athens to resolve. She set strict limits on the aid she was prepared to dispense, and tough conditions on any disbursement.

Yet having seriously contemplated the possibility of a Greek default and withdrawal from the euro, she changed her mind in 2011, they conclude. It was a classic Merkel U-turn. She decided the risk was too ghastly to contemplate. Ever since she has been dedicated to stabilising the euro, and reinforcing the rules of the eurozone to ensure such a crisis never happens again.

No fewer than five biographical works – four in German, plus Crawford and Czuczka’s in English – have been published in the past few months. All admit they struggle to find out what really makes this woman tick.

“Angela Merkel is another name for ‘open questions’,” writes Nikolaus Blome, deputy editor and Berlin bureau chief for Bild, Germany’s biggest mass-circulation newspaper, in Angela Merkel, Die Zauder-Künstlerin. Blome’s portrait sums up his thesis in its title, which translates as “mistress of the art of hesitation”. He sees Merkel as a politician who has turned a negative aspect of her character – procrastination – into a defining feature of her government. “She has developed this personal peculiarity into a political skill that clearly delights many Germans – but disappoints or infuriates a not insignificant minority.”

Merkel’s careful, deliberative style is often attributed to her East German upbringing, and the habit of secrecy adopted for fear of eavesdropping by the Stasi secret police and their informers. This is the subject of the most potentially sensational of the recent books, Das Erste Leben der Angela M. (The First Life of Angela M.) by Ralf Georg Reuth and Günther Lachmann. The authors, who write for the conservative newspaper Die Welt, suggest that she was much more sympathetic to the communist regime than she has ever admitted.

For a start, they raise questions about the success of her school and university career – surprising given that she was the daughter of a clergyman and, as such, would normally have been prevented from pursuing a higher education. She was always top of the class and even won a prize – a trip to Moscow – for Russian. But that is already well known.

Their main claim is that she was the “secretary for agitation and propaganda” of her branch of the Free German Youth (FDJ) organisation when working in her science laboratory, responsible for the promotion of Marxism-Leninism. Merkel denies it. She says one of her fellow members in the FDJ always maintains the same story, but she remembers having simply been involved in social and cultural activities.

The authors conclude that she wanted to make the communist system work better, not to overthrow it. But they did not find any evidence to suggest that she co-operated with the ubiquitous Stasi, or actually joined the Communist party. Like the U-turns in her political life, the allegations that she was a reformist rather than a radical in the GDR have failed to stick to the Teflon Chancellor. They even suit her image. She has an extraordinary capacity blandly to shrug off criticism, as if her actions were always utterly normal and inconsequential.

The image of Merkel that emerges from these books is of a politician who has exploited her opportunities with remarkable single-mindedness, rather than one driven by a constant ambition to get to the top. But once at the top, she has been ruthless in defending her position.

On the one hand, the chancellor is profoundly cautious and risk-averse. She proceeds by trial-and-error and weighs up all the consequences. She is popular with her advisers because she is good at mastering a brief and remembering the essential details of complex negotiations. Yet at the same time she is pragmatic, non-ideological and quite capable of reversing her political direction. Her career has demonstrated an acute instinct for power, and a readiness to be ruthless in abandoning former allies as soon as they become liabilities. While she is slow to trust people (another trait from a life under communism), she greatly values loyalty.

She presides over a very tight-knit group of close confidantes who also respect strict rules of confidentiality. Few secrets spill out from behind the glass walls of the chancellor’s office on the banks of the Spree in Berlin, an irony given that the building’s architecture is intended to symbolise transparency.

The Bloomberg correspondents’ book is as much about the course of the eurozone crisis as it is about the German chancellor. Given the relative paucity of inside information, it is not a bad idea to try to understand Merkel through what she does and says, and not attempt to get too far beneath the surface. For Blome, she is a politician defined by events, not by vision. “Angela Merkel did not define the theme of her chancellorship,” he writes. “The theme found her: the euro and its rescue; the reconstruction of Europe; and Germany and its new role.”

It is an attitude that infuriates opponents, who cannot understand how she always gets away with her opportunism. It also frustrates her admirers, who would like to believe she has a clear – and conservative – political agenda. But it does seem to be a very good recipe for political survival.

Quentin Peel is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief

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