Europe after Merkel: Goodbye to the woman who has held Europe together

What will happen to Germany and the EU after she departs the scene in September?

 Chancellor Angela Merkel after visiting the flood-ravaged towns in western Germany.  Many see the floods as an appropriate, tragic symbol of Merkel’s mixed climate record. Photograph:  Christof Stache /  AFP via Getty

Chancellor Angela Merkel after visiting the flood-ravaged towns in western Germany. Many see the floods as an appropriate, tragic symbol of Merkel’s mixed climate record. Photograph: Christof Stache / AFP via Getty

 

Exactly 100 years ago in Frankfurt, the 30 year-old inventor Max Braun founded an electronics company that conquered the world. With stylish, functional design, Braun radios and electric shavers realised – and commercialised – the lost potential of the Bauhaus design school, founded two years before Braun but suppressed by the Nazis.

In 1985 Braun’s chief designer Dieter Rams published a 10-point plan for good design, itself a nod to the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto. Place the Bauhaus and Braun documents side by side, replace “design” with “politics”, and you have the elusive blueprint for the leadership of Angela Merkel, Germany’s “Braunhaus” chancellor. Here we employ Rams’s design principles to help us assess Merkel’s political career.

1 Good design is innovative

Living with Angela Merkel – as a politician for 31 years and writing about her as chancellor for 16 – it’s easy to forget just how unusual and innovative she has been.

Merkel was the first woman and the first easterner to become German chancellor. When her fourth term ends with the September 26th election, she will be the first postwar German politician to leave office by choice. In an era of social media populism and alpha male nationalism, she has kept her wits, her manners, and her integrity. Her greatest innovation, though, is proving that modern politicians can survive without selling their souls. She sees politics as a handcraft rather than a calling.

“She sees what needs to be done and does it; it’s all about the work, never her,” says a long-serving senior member of her government. “People devise complex theories about her, perhaps because our times and the challenges we face are so complex, but she’s all about functionality and is not that complex as a person.”

2 Good design is as little design as possible

As a person we know the facts of her life, but little more. Born Angela Kasner in Hamburg in 1954 but raised in East Germany as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, she excelled at maths and science and went on to study physics and work as a researcher in East Berlin.

Even after 16 years in power, her private life remains private: her surname is the only visible trace of her first marriage while her second husband appears at her side only for the annual Wagner festival, earning him the title “Phantom of the Opera”.

A self-described political agnostic, Merkel kept her head down during the 1989 peaceful revolution that toppled the Berlin Wall and claims she ended up in public life by fluke. As press spokesperson for a now defunct reform party and then East Germany’s last government, her final boss recommended her to chancellor Helmut Kohl when he sought three easterners for his post-unification cabinet.

Asked once what western Germans could learn from easterners like her, she replied: “Patience.”

Another “Ossi” (the informal term for a citizen of the former German Democratic Republic) skill she has retained is to allow others speak first, often showing their hand, before she utters a word. I watched her perform that trick at a lunch some years back in the chancellery where, before the main course arrived, she had the handful of journalists at the table talking rather than listening.

3 Good design is unobtrusive

Merkel’s maxim is simple: in calm lies power. Behind her calm, mousy exterior, Merkel hid her will for power as she rose through the ranks.

More experienced politicians underestimated her low-key style – as an Ossi and a woman – and were unprepared by her first grab for power late in 1999: shafting her scandal-tainted mentor Helmut Kohl and wrong-footing party rivals to snatch the leadership of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Her remaining CDU rivals – all western German men – still viewed her as a stop-gap party leader, even as she sidelined them in succession. They have never forgiven her for that, nor have the Social Democrat-Green alpha males she pushed aside for office: chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer.

From 2005 as chancellor, her unobtrusive camouflage changed: a no-nonsense hairdo; a uniform of multicoloured blazers, slacks and flats; a rhetorical style that combines sonorous Brandenburg vowels with blank language.

German writer Carolin Emcke once studied Merkel’s parliamentary speeches, despairing over how “after three manuscripts you crave Japanese horseradish by the teaspoon just to fight the growing mental paralysis”.

“Merkel doesn’t or can’t talk about dreams and visions,” she wrote. “She wants to think in the feasible, not the possible.”

4 Good design is authentic

Merkel’s greatest political conjuring trick was her 2013 election slogan: “You know me.”

Though complete nonsense, the private chancellor’s personality-based pitch worked like a charm: her CDU ended election night just short of an absolute majority on 41.5 per cent. With careful image management and regular private polling – up to three times a week – the childless German leader has reversed engineered and delivered on a deep German need for a maternalistic leadership.

“The chancellor exudes a feeling that she will solve all problems somehow,” noted the left-wig Taz newspaper in 2013, “even if no one really knows how.”

Her popularity has usually hovered at about 60-70 per cent, never dipping below 41 per cent, thanks to her moderating approach to power in successive grand coalitions, and an iterative “small steps” political style. For her supporters, Germany’s unprecedented economic winning streak in the last 16 years – with only brief crisis dents – is testament to Merkel’s golden touch.

Critics point to a very different Merkel who, in 2003, promised a radical overhaul of healthcare, pensions, labour law and wage costs. But she over-estimated German appetite for honesty and, after barely scraping into power in 2005, she dialled down her reform zeal.

In a rare moment of public reflection, she admitted in a 2019 speech at Harvard: “As chancellor I often have to ask myself: am I doing the right thing; am I doing it because it’s right, or just because it’s possible?”

5 Good design is honest

Merkel operates in the liminal space between political pragmatism and tactical opportunism. Honesty is often Merkel’s policy but, like Woody Allen, if you don’t like her principles – she has others. At Harvard in 2019, she didn’t protest when introduced as the progressive European politician who brought Germany marriage equality, the minimum wage and the end of nuclear power.

The reality is more complicated. It’s true that Merkel decided to drop nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima accident. But, just a year earlier, she halted the nuclear exit plan she inherited from the previous government. In 2015, after years of opposition, she backed a minimum wage proposal from her SPD grand coalition partner – and promptly stole the credit.

Merkel pulled a free parliamentary vote on marriage equality out of her hat in 2017 but, reportedly to placate CDU conservatives, voted against it herself in the Bundestag. A former SPD cabinet member compared her political style to a plane trip: “You feel secure and relaxed with her, but you never know where you’re going to land.” Years later, another weary SPD rival added: “Wherever you go politically, when you arrive she’s already there.”

Merkel is viewed as so honest and incorruptible that no one can imagine her taking a back-hander. Her predecessors as chancellor both have somewhat tainted legacies: Helmut Kohl accepted illegal political donations; Gerhard Schröder took a high-priced consultancy job with Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy utility – hardly a corrupt act but certainly an ill-advised one.

6 Good design is consequential

While the former US president Donald Trump favoured the winner-takes-all Art of the Deal, Merkel has remained authentic to the face-saving compromise and fears it is an endangered species in modern politics.

“These days the room for compromise is often no longer easy to find,” she warned in 2019, “and ambiguity is not much appreciated.”

Despite her skill as a political chameleon, as chancellor she has remained consequential on a three core principles: the security of Israel; German and EU integration in the multilateral order; and the transatlantic relationship. The latter has always been her biggest priority, say close Merkel watchers.

In 2009, the otherwise sober chancellor told the US congress how, during her first 35 years growing up in East Germany, she remained “passionate” about the US defence of freedom and civil rights it represented for her, “even though until 1989 America was simply out of reach for me”.

This was all in her head, Merkel officials say, when she offered cool congratulations to Trump on his 2016 presidential victory. She offered the German-American president a “close co-operation” on what she called shared US-German values: respect for democracy, freedom, the rule of law and human dignity.

7 Good design is understandable

This is where Germany’s Braunhaus chancellor begins to struggle. Since her schooldays, paralysed on the diving board, Merkel remembers having a deep fear of making the wrong decision. Her opaque decision-making process and modest rhetorical ability, meanwhile, often limit her ability to get others behind any decisions she finally makes.

In the euro crisis, faced with huge opposition at home to bailing out Ireland and other crisis countries, Merkel only agreed after securing swingeing austerity and reform measures in return. Fury elsewhere at the measures’ social cost was drowned out in Germany’s emotive debate about the supposed cost and risk – none of which came to pass.

Trapped between warnings of a German diktat abroad and howls of bailout betrayal at home, Merkel’s eurocrisis response was her belated, imperfect attempt to escape a high-risk Catch-22 situation and shatter the EU.

“She always did enough to keep the EU show on the road,” said Prof Brigid Laffan, director of the Robert Schuman Centre at Florence’s European University Institute. “She kept Greece in the euro zone when finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble decided that it would survive a Grexit.”

Merkel’s belated embrace of bailouts – as “alternativlos”, or without alternative, to save the euro – came at a cost. It opened the door, and was name-giver to, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which soared to new heights in the 2015 refugee crisis.

This exposed the limits of Merkel’s ability to make politics understandable. Her decision to keep open Germany’s borders and accept one million people was applauded – but not matched – by most EU neighbours, and a morally questionable treaty with Turkey followed to keep refugees out of Europe.

Her crisis responses have compounded disorientation and anger among more conservative CDU members, already at odds with the Merkel-era push to the political centre. For them, agreeing to let the European Commission issue debt to finance the EU pandemic recovery fund – cheered elsewhere as proof of Merkel’s European calling – was the final betrayal.

Mixed feelings remain on her Brexit response. Merkel was frustrated at not being more involved, but her aides say British politicians and journalists made two key miscalculations.

“They underestimated how much higher she valued holding the EU together than keeping the UK,” said a government official, “and they believed – wrongly – that she would eventually yield to the lobbying of Germany manufacturers.”

One final shadow, Prof Laffan suggests, is how Merkel and her CDU have been “far too tolerant” of the pushback by Hungary and Poland against EU rule-of-law standards: “I think this is an area where her legacy is less benign.

8 Good design is long-lasting

This is where the Braunhaus chancellor blueprint begins to get blurry, with even admirers ambivalent over what will remain of Merkel when she departs. What’s clear is that, on her watch, Germany emerged – economically and politically – as the first among equals in the EU.

“And it’s testament to her skill that this has come about without ending in enmity,” says Stefan Kornelius, a Merkel biographer. “In an unprecedented series of crises she has held Europe together with Germany at its heart. That is her big strategic achievement.”

With her stable longevity she has quietly repositioned Germany on the international stage: staying out of the 2013 military intervention in Libya and the chaotic aftermath; staying the distance in Afghanistan, with Germany second only to the US in troop numbers; taking the lead in the Russia-Ukraine stand-off after the Crimea annexation to avoid outright war in Europe.

For all their public praise, though, allies in Washington, Paris and elsewhere struggle to get clear positions from the Merkel administration on the future of the EU, and its stance on Russia and China – leaving unanswered questions for the post-Merkel era.

For all her global crisis management, at home the longevity of her legacy hinges on the (in)competence of her successor and the sizeable reform backlog Merkel has left behind: healthcare, tax, pensions, creaking public administration and infrastructure, and a mobile phone network worse than Bulgaria’s.

9 Good design is eco-friendly

Merkel has cut a lonely figure as she visited towns ravaged by last week’s floods, haunted by her younger political self. As German environment minister in 1995, at the first UN climate conference in Bonn, Merkel pushed through the Kyoto Protocol and binding climate goals, arguing that greenhouse gases “have to be reduced as quickly as possible”.

Flash forward to April 2021, when Germany’s federal constitutional court threw out a recent Merkel climate plan as too vague, shifting too much of the burden on to younger generations.

As “climate chancellor”, she has pushed Germany’s renewable energy share from 10 to 40 per cent, but the “Energiewende” or energy transition is a wobbly work-in progress. And Merkel has lobbied hard for the other side, too: intervening during Ireland’s 2013 presidency to water down rules on exhaust emissions she feared would hobble Germany’s car industry.

Given all this, many see the floods as an appropriate, tragic symbol of Merkel’s mixed climate record.

Dr Claudia Kemfert, a leading energy analyst, says: “I wouldn’t be surprised if, after her chancellorship, she does everything she can to advocate active climate protection behind the scenes.”

10 In good design, form follows function

In her otherwise spartan office, Merkel keeps a portrait of Catherine the Great, the Prussian-born Russian empress. In the past 16 years, she has internalised Catherine’s conviction that a capable political ruler is “guided by circumstances, conjectures and conjunctions”.

She worked to build up political capital with voters, argues biographer Stefan Kornelius, then deployed it carefully when needed – in the euro, refugee and pandemic crises – to hold Germany, and Europe, together.

“Merkel always knew how far to go without endangering her power, that’s how you hold on to power for 16 years,” he adds.

After three decades and countless glasses of red wine together, film-maker Volker Schlöndorff jokes that the secret about Merkel is that there is none.

“She is no sphinx, there is no mystery behind what meets the eye,” he said. Pressed on her legacy, he adds: “She reconciled Germany with itself. We are just normal people after all – though she is not.”

On Thursday in Berlin, at her 29th and final summer press conference, Germany’s rational Braunhaus chancellor knocked back stoically every sentimental softball question lobbed her way.

“It’s up to others to draw a balance, and they will do that,” she said. “I’m at ease with myself, with my life and my biography. I think both gave me good opportunities to make a contribution to Germany’s political life.”

Europe After Merkel - 

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Naomi O'Leary: Who will rule in the post-Merkel EU?

Denis Staunton: UK hopes to reset relationship with Germany after forever misjudging Merkel

Lara Marlowe: France prepares for departure of sometimes reluctant partner and rival