Former German chancellor Schröder defends Merkel on euro crisis

Merkel’s ‘restrained’ leadership is ‘appropriate’, says Schröder

German ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder has broken his golden rule since retiring from politics and come out in defence of his little-loved successor, Angela Merkel.

His intervention follows weeks of protest in Cyprus, focused on the German leader, over the terms of a euro zone rescue package for the island's banks.

Images of protestors with posters of Dr Merkel sporting a Hitler moustache or SS uniform, beamed into German living rooms, have triggered a debate here shot through with angst, apathy and anger over perceived German dominance in Europe.

"With its current economic strength and political importance, Germany is being called upon to take on leadership on Europe," said Mr Schröder in yesterday's edition of Der Spiegel . "But even I learned in my term of office that Germany can only lead in Europe the way hedgehogs make love: very carefully."


Then the former leader, infamous in German politics for his barbed remarks, made a barbed compliment of his one-time political rival.

“Dr Merkel was pretty late making decisions for help and solidarity, something that certainly made the euro rescue more expensive,” he said. “But she isn’t refusing German leadership, rather she is using it in a restrained fashion. I find that appropriate.”

In case anyone thought he was going soft in his old age, Mr Schröder made sure to dispense plenty of criticism for Merkel allies in Berlin.

Mr Volker Kauder, Bundestag leader for the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), raised hackles around Europe last year for suggesting that acceptance of assistance in return for fiscal discipline and austerity measures demanded by Berlin showed crisis-hit Europe was learning to "speak German".

“Other states expect leadership from Germany, not shows of superiority,” said Mr Schröder. “Sentences like ‘Europe now speaks German’ are not exactly helpful.”

While Mr Schröder defended the German leader on Cyprus, Dr Merkel dispatched another tough-as-nails defender to shore up Germany's reputation in Greece.

Otto Rehhagel, six years older than Mr Schröder but sharing the same striking chestnut hair tone, served as coach to the Greek soccer team for nine years until 2010. After helping Greece to victory in the Euro 2004 championship, he was adopted by jubilant Greeks as one of their own – they rechristened him Rehhakles, after Heracles, son of Zeus.

Dr Merkel knows polishing up Germany's image in crisis-hit Greece requires near-divine powers. When she visited Athens last October some 7,000 police were on duty to secure a cordon between her and an army of furious protestors.

Mr Rehhagel visited youth soccer teams and had an audience with Archbishop Hieronymus II, head of the Greek Orthodox church.

In interviews he recycled sentences from Dr Merkel’s visit in the hope the same words would have a different effect from the mouth of Rehhakles.

“I believe in the ability of the Greeks to get over this crisis,” said Mr Rehhagel. “I’d like to reassure them to get them over this difficult situation. and I’m convinced that this will succeed.”

As with Greece before it, most German media commentary has been largely critical of crisis-hit Cyprus. But, increasingly, critical notes are being struck by some media commentators.

“As the Cyprus ordeal intensified, a truth about German politics was revealed, characterised by a stubbornness that Germans see as sticking to their principles, but what is in fact nothing more than self-righteousness,” wrote the left-leaning commentator Jakob Augstein, on Spiegel Online.

An opinion poll for Focus magazine showed 56 per cent of Germans had no sympathy for anti-German feeling in the euro crisis, while 40 per cent expressed understanding for criticism of Berlin.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin