The three pillars of Merkelism: How to understand Angela Merkel

The Economist, 09.09.2017
  • These distinctions explain both the chancellor’s strengths and her weaknesses


Angela Merkel is the longest-serving head of government in the EU. When she became chancellor, in 2005, her international counterparts were George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. She became leader of the CDU during the Clinton administration. Yet after all this time, she remains a conundrum to many. Der Spiegel has called her as inscrutable “sphinxes, divas and queens”.

It is not hard to see why. The chancellor’s record is seemingly one of contradictions: the centre-right politician who let in 1.2m immigrants, the “new leader of the free world” whose name is a byword for inaction (literally, in the German neologism “to merkel”), the liberal hero who voted against gay marriage. Mrs Merkel’s tendency to vague, even cryptic, language—which I recently discussed on this blog—further adds to the mystery.

The process of researching and writing it involved attending several of Mrs Merkel’s live events, talking to colleagues, confidantes and opponents, and looking back over her political career. I came out of it with the conclusion that three distinctions mark the chancellor and unlock her apparent contradictions. She is:

-Ethical, not ideologicalHer Lutheran faith (“an inner compass”, she calls it) expresses itself in her unflashy style and her instincts: debt is bad; helping the needy, good. She thinks ethically, not ideologically. “I’m a bit liberal, a bit Christian-social, a bit conservative,” she said in 2009. For Konstantin Richter, whose novel “The Chancellor” imagines her inner life, her distrust of ideology is rooted in her experience of East Germany: “She witnessed ideology collapse and believers turn into non-believers overnight.”

-Reactive, not programmatic. She manages events as they arise rather than hatching long-term plans. “She works like a scientist: she reads lots, assesses the facts and doesn’t have preconceptions,” observes Jens Spahn, her CDU colleague and deputy finance minister. She monitors events and mood-shifts in a constant exchange of text messages with aides, officials and MPs. In her campaigning Mrs Merkel invites voters to endorse her temperament, not specific proposals. Her message: I will handle such dramas as cross my desk calmly, rationally and without anything so distracting as a project.

-Detached, not engaged. Mrs Merkel keeps her options open and strives never to rile or polarise. Her sentences are paper-chains of subclauses and qualifications. East Germany’s paranoid and hyper-surveilled society and Helmut Kohl’s patriarchal CDU taught her the virtues of ambiguity and patience. At a recent rally in the northern city of Bremen protesters heckled, kazooed and klaxoned the chancellor. Barely audible, she ploughed on unruffled: “Some have decided to spend the next four years yelling,” she ad-libbed with a shrug and a smile. She employs similar putdowns—calm but gently mocking—at international summits.

None of these is innately good or bad. As I go on to explain in the briefing, the creditable aspects of Mrs Merkel’s chancellorship—the stability, the pragmatism, the fundamental decency—might be less pronounced under a more ideological, programmatic and engaged leader. Yet they also undergird the qualifications with which The Economist endorsed her for a fourth term this week: though she has administered Germany’s “golden age” well, the leader argues, Mrs Merkel has not yet adequately prepared it for a demanding future.

This poses a big question: can she adapt in office? In what will probably be her final term, can a chancellor of 12 years shift, somewhat at least, the balance of her own constitution? It is sometimes said that the longer a political leader stays in office, the closer she cleaves to her essential traits; the closer she grows to her caricature. The difference between an alright Merkel legacy and a great one will probably be measured in her ability to defy this rule.

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