Foreigners often paint Angela Merkel as a colorless disciplinarian whose domestic success is based on her appeal to Germans’ stingy and pedantic side. This picture is a complete misunderstanding. Germans are no less baffled by their leader, struggling to understand how she manages to win at the dirty game of politics and charm them all the while. Call her the Mona Lisa of European politics – fascinating to all, understood by none. But as an outsider with decades of experience in Germany, perhaps I can shed some light on the subject.
Merkel is a woman in a world dominated by men, and for many people, it’s fascinating to watch her vanquish one alpha male after another. She chips away at her challengers until they give up or, if necessary, get the boot. There is something about the gender dynamic of these confrontations that keeps Germans hooked.
The chancellor knows Germany better than most. After reunification, many residents of the former GDR felt overrun. Most politicians didn’t bother to empathise with their situation, and those that did were often Communist-era fossils. But Merkel is entirely at home in both east and west. She’s like a football player without a weak foot. That’s a decisive advantage in any political situation.
Merkel’s low-key style is rather boring, and by most accounts, that should be a strike against her. But in fact, Merkel’s unruffled appearance gives her a sense of being the nation’s fairy godmother. She is kind to everyone. She is liked almost whereever she goes. She gives people a sense of security at a time of tremendous upheaval.
The chancellor is accurately viewed as incorruptible. She comes across as uninterested in money. Bribery is not her thing. Of course, she could use her position to personal advantage – but she doesn’t, and I don’t think she will do so in future (unlike other previous German chancellors). She has other passions in life.
Merkel remains the consummate scientist, even if she hasn’t seen the inside of a laboratory in years. Her dissertation – Investigation of the mechanism of decay reactions with single bond breaking and calculation of their velocity constants on the basis of quantum chemical and statistical methods – probably isn’t much use in the daily crises she now confronts. But her analytical approach has stuck. It gives her an integrity and credibility that few politicians can match.
The chancellor remains true to her roots. She gives off a grounded impression that is rare for a leader of her stature. I see her myself occasionally at my local supermarket, where she shops for groceries and patiently waits in line at the cash register, or spends a few minutes in front of a bottle-recycling machine.
Throughout her career, Merkel has always been underestimated or overestimated. When she’s not a ninny who cannot hold her own in party politics, she’s a Bismarck with a grand strategy for controlling Europe. But Merkel’s enduring advantage is that she understands something her critics don’t – herself.
In recent years doubts have emerged on whether Merkel is still able to keep her large base of support among Germans. A major example was the Japanese nuclear accident of March 2011, caused by an earthquake and a 15-metre tsunami. This accident sent shock waves through Germany and created enormous pressure to abandon the nuclear industry in this country. Merkel, who had favored an energy-mix including nuclear power, was quick to change her posture and to find a compromise that called for shutting down all remaining nuclear plants over a transition period of 25 years.
Another major example was the refugee crisis of 2015. Initially Merkel welcomed the refugees and even seemed to encourage them to cross the borders into Germany. But facing major protest in her own party she gradually adopted a new posture and over time has been able to retain the support of the rank-and-file. This happened as Merkel devoted a lot of time and energy to strike a new balance among conflicting constrains regarding the refugee influx. To achieve her goals, Merkel successfully invested a lot of political capital in Germany, in Europe and on the international scene.
Nowadays Merkel is facing enormous pressure to distance herself from the administration of USA president Donald Trump and to assume a new role as the leader of the West. Here again, Merkel has adopted a realistic approach, taking into account the broader strategic and political circumstances. From her standpoint as the defender of Western values, the chancellor does criticize Trump from time to time. But she does so very cautiously, knowing that in spite of all her strengths Germany’s options are limited. Merkel surely never forgets that Germany is protected by the American nuclear umbrella and depends on Washington for her vital security needs.
Against this background, the opponents of the sitting chancellor appear at times as irresponsible bullies in a fragile political arena, while Merkel has all along demonstrated her skills as a Master of Compromise and shown a knack for occupying the middle ground – what the Germans refer to as “Maß und Mitte.” This is also where the majority of German voters lie, and it’s why they are very likley to return Merkel to office again.