The measure of Merkel
Her speeches are considered as uninspiring as her image but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is proving to be the right person to act as unofficial leader of a Europe in crisis – pragmatic, flexible, commanding. Derek Scally talks to friends and colleagues who have known her all her political life
“We weren’t eloquent; we weren’t allowed to be in a dictatorship, but we came relatively honest out of the experience,” Krüger says. “We had learned both how to fit in while finding not quite official ways to assert oneself and get through.”
Showing flexibility in the means to achieve one’s end is more an Irish than a classic German characteristic, but it helped Merkel get ahead, first as minister for women and children and, in 1994, the environment.
It was at this time that Merkel scored her first major political success: salvaging climate talks in Bonn from disaster and securing a lauded agreement that paved the way to the Kyoto Protocol.
In her Munich atelier, Koelbl points to a noticeable shift in her mid-1990s photographs of Merkel: the insecure gaze is gone, the body language more composed.
“From the first time I met her I sensed an independence that she had, although she appeared awkward,” Koelbl says. “In the 1994 photograph you can see she had an important experience. She told me: ‘I can only count on myself and my instincts’.”
From here on, Koelbl’s portraits capture an increasingly confident politician who, in 1999, launched a go-for-broke attack on Helmut Kohl for accepting illegal party funding.
Flinging aside the decade-old camouflage on her political ambition, she made a daring play for the top job, sidelining a dazed clique of CDU princes who had carved up the party leadership between them. Some 13 years on, she remains the CDU’s unchallenged leader, commanding respect far beyond her own party.
A very senior member of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), famed for his public attacks on Merkel, summarised his feelings recently: “You’re looking at the first president of the Social Democrat Merkel fan club.”
Merkel is a private person, preferring to spend weekends in a cottage north of Berlin than with her political colleagues. Indeed, she has almost no politician friends. One exception is Klaus von Dohnányi, a former SPD mayor of Hamburg and nephew of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis.
The 85-year-old is Merkel’s regular companion at the opera and classical concerts. They have a golden rule not to discuss politics but, sitting in the livingroom of his elegant Hamburg villa, he shares some observations on his famous friend.
Merkel has three core political values: alliance with the US, defence of Israel and, if in doubt, to come down on the side of political and economic freedom. The rest is negotiable. This has lead to a commonly-heard criticism that Merkel is more an apolitical moderator than a classic political leader, with clear ideology and co-ordinates.
Von Dohnányi agrees with the critics’ observations but disagrees with their conclusion. Merkel’s skills allow her to push through necessary political change, such as abolishing nuclear power or compulsory military service, with the minimum of drama.
Her leadership style, underpinned by her scientific background and Christian childhood, places her above party politics and in tune with the times, he says. On her watch she has broadened the CDU appeal to ensure, unlike his own SPD, it still attracts 40 per cent voter support.
“She’s not a typical German politician,” von Dohnányi says. “Merkel has a Scandinavian temperament, she does politics the way the Swedes or Danes do. The only surprising thing about Merkel is that she is so normal yet so successful.”
At the opposite end of the country in Munich, photographer Herlinde Koelbl shakes her head when she hears the word “ordinary”.
“If she was an ordinary person she wouldn’t be chancellor. All chancellors have to have something others don’t have,” she says.
Koelbl believes Merkel appears so ordinary because she has achieved her political ends without employing the traditionally masculine attributes of power. While Thatcher armed herself for the political fray with a handbag and voice lessons, Merkel has allowed only the minimum work on her image: sober, sensible trouser suits and hairstyle.
Considering how well her image goes down with Germans is this, perhaps, the key to Merkel’s political success: the orchestration of the ordinary?
One of her advisers looks perplexed when I suggest this, saying: “There’s no production, no staging: she is as she is.”
Long-time Merkel confidantes say that, apart from losing her shyness, Merkel has not changed noticeably in office. The most common Merkel characteristics you hear from them are: cautiousness, wilfulness, restraint, lack of vanity and assertiveness.
Those are attributes familiar to leaders who have dealt with Merkel in many late-night eurozone crisis summits. It is in Brussels during the past four years where Merkel and Germany have trascended the national to achieve a European and global stature.
It is also where the German leader has triggered the most disquiet for her two-pronged crisis strategy: financial assistance conditional on tough economic and social reforms.
Her many critics accuse her of consistently offering too little, too late: driving up the final cost of rescue measures and condemning criis countries to a vicious circle of austerity and recession
Their criticisms are like water off a duck’s back at home. Instead, Merkel has been remarkably successful in presenting herself as an uncompromising and unyielding politician, even though her record shows she is anything but.
A decade ago Merkel demanded her party back a programme of radical economic reforms she said were vital for Germany’s future. Her party refused, Merkel learned her lesson and rowed back. Since taking office she has never tried to impose on her own electorate the kind of reforms she demands of crisis countries. Instead she has adopted a conciliatory, caring mother-of-the-nation persona and is dubbed “mutti” (mummy) by friend and foe alike.