Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis, by Alan Crawford and Tony Czucka
Reviewed by Derek Scally
Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis
Alan Crawford and Tony Czucka
It has taken four decades, but we finally have an answer for Henry Kissinger. His famous question, or at least one variation of it, was: “Who do I call if Europe is on fire?” The answer is: +49-30-184000, the telephone number of Angela Merkel’s boxy chancellery opposite the Reichstag in Berlin. Less by political design than economic accident – a Wall Street blaze causing a euro-zone inferno – Europe’s tectonic plates of power have shifted Germany, and its leader, into the spotlight.
Ahead of her bid for a third term in September, two Berlin-based Bloomberg journalists, Tony Czuczka and Alan Crawford, have produced the first full-length work in English on Angela Merkel. Drawing on their own articles, some interviews and plenty of background research, they have compiled an accessible and readable volume that is more a collection of related essays than a classic biography.
The book’s aim: to put some narrative order on the chaotic crisis to allow a second pass over the low-profile long game played by Merkel in Brussels – one that often goes unreported in the summit fireworks.
As with previous Merkel biographers in German, however, the challenge the authors face is whether knowing the facts about Merkel helps us extrapolate any authoritative insights into how the world’s most influential woman thinks and acts.
For a modern leader, Merkel keeps extraordinarily close counsel. Only two people – her special adviser and her office manager, both women who are never seen in public – can claim to know what she really thinks. Even staff who deal with her each day admit they are more observers to than participants in the Merkellian process of power.
Outside observers see an unflappable, often grim-faced public persona, adopted by Merkel early on, that is quite different from her private personality. Her political communication strategy is to downplay every situation, no matter how dramatic – her recent “contempt” for Anglo Irish Bank was a very rare outburst.
The Social Democrat politician Peer Steinbrück conceded to foreign correspondents in Berlin recently that Merkel’s strategy to dourly downplay everything made her all but impervious to attack. “She lulls people to sleep, telling them: ‘I’ll take care of things, and when you wake up the world will be back in order again.’ ”
Keeping her thoughts and strategies to herself, characteristic for her East German upbringing, is what seems to drive her unerring ability to adapt, noiselessly, to new circumstances.
Like most of her countrymen and women, Merkel appears to have been neither dissident nor fellow traveller. While her father’s pastorship in Templin, north of Berlin, closed some doors of opportunity to her, his belief in “socialism with a human face” would have been easily accepted by his daughter. She chose differently, however, distancing herself from her family early on through scientific study in Leipzig and, later, a research job in East Berlin. Structuring her life and avoiding chaos were important to her, she said later. The methodical and predictable worlds of applied physics and chemistry provided this structure, as well as the added satisfaction of mastering “something that didn’t come easy”.
Her interest in politics stems from the turbulent year between the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, and German unification, a year later. A series of chance opportunities gave her a start in politics as protege of Helmut Kohl. But it was her own talents – an ability to analyse, then act decisively – that kept her in the game.
Her ability to analyse technical details and synthesise opposing views into compromise served her well as far back as 1995, when, as environment minister, she secured agreement in Berlin that led to the Kyoto Protocol. In 1999 she spotted the opportunity to shaft the scandal-tainted Kohl before her more experienced West German rivals did, securing her 13-years-and-counting leadership of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Given these skills, Czucka and Crawford raise some pointed, timely questions about her analysis and handling of the euro crisis that have shaped her chancellorship. They chart how, early in the banking crisis, Merkel attacked “irresponsible” lending on Wall Street while finessing how subprime overindulgence by just three German banks cost the German taxpayer more than €80 billion in emergency loans and guarantees.
Despite German feet of clay in the US subprime disaster, the Merkel administration has framed the resulting euro crisis as a core-periphery, saint-sinner narrative. This has encouraged a put-upon mentality in the German media, and, it could be argued, the narrow domestic room Merkel has in which to manoeuvre in the crisis is largely of her own making.
Beyond German banks, the authors suggest Merkel’s staff stoked up the Greek crisis in January 2010 by accidentally releasing a closed-door speech expressing her concern that Greece “can put us under great pressures” in the euro zone. By the time her office tried to withdraw the remarks, Greece was already feeling the effects on financial markets.
Another error, they suggest, was Merkel’s infamous Deauville stroll in October 2010 with the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Their demand for a bigger-bang solution to the crisis, including a tighter EU fiscal rulebook in exchange for further assistance, was overshadowed by a call for the “adequate participation of private creditors”.
Financial markets, unsure if this proposal included retrospective investments, took fright, and the crisis in the euro zone’s periphery became systemic. “If investors were thinking of pulling out of Ireland,” the authors note drily, “Merkel had given them another reason to do so.” Five weeks after Deauville, with risk premiums on borrowing soaring, Dublin applied for a bailout – a bailout, incidentally, Angela Merkel once confided to German journalists during a plane trip, she would never support.
For all her strategic mistakes and course corrections, Czuka and Crawford give her credit in other moments of crisis. The European Commission’s initial plan to reassign €60 billion from the EU budget for struggling banks would impress no one, she argued in Brussels, pushing instead for leaders to agree the first European Financial Stability Facility bailout fund, with IMF involvement.
Merkel’s course corrections in the crisis continue today, with her shift from an austerity-first line to today’s claims that she always viewed budget consolidation and growth measures as necessary, complementary measures. Like a scientist in a laboratory, Angela Merkel writes off failed experiments, adjusts the concentration of chemicals, and starts again in the hope of a better result. But Europe is not a laboratory, and Merkel is both lead scientist and most potent chemical in the Brussels test tube. Application of heat or pressure from her, often based on domestic political concerns, can alter the outcome of the entire experiment in unpredictable and unprecedented ways.
While one half of Europe wait impatiently for Merkel to set a course for the continent, the other half fear they are already prisoners aboard a Berlin-dominated austerity voyage towards a multispeed, intergovernmental EU in contradiction to best European tradition.
European leaders know they can expect few definitive answers from Berlin. But the euro-zone crisis has rewired the union, leaving few other options than to dial M for Merkel.
Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent