Merkel’s decade

The German chancellor has huge support and works the media well – but, after 10 years in office, can she inspire a nation during tougher times?

a
 

The woman who slips out of the door into the mild summer dawn doesn’t look like Angela Merkel. It’s just after 7am on Am Kupfergraben, a short, cobbled street of 18th-century apartments that overlooks the silent water of the River Spree in Berlin.

On this deserted stretch of the city centre the door of number 6, where the woman lives on the fourth floor with her husband, closes as quickly as it opens. Passenger inside, the Audi glides towards her office, a sprawling concrete-and-glass box two kilometres down the river.

The car slips through the mint-green gates and halts at a sliding door. The 61-year-old passenger heads straight to the eighth floor to don the Kanzlerpanzer: the chancellor armour.

Her hair is shaped into its familiar helmet, the long-hold makeup is applied. Add a trademark trouser suit and the vaguely familiar 61-year-old German woman has been transformed into Angela Merkel.

She enters her office, shuns the massive desk at the far end and sits as usual at the long conference table near the door to scan the morning press cuttings. After her 8.30am staff meeting concludes the German chancellor is off and running for another day.

For a decade this has been the daily routine of the world’s most powerful woman. And with 68 per cent popular support she shows no sign of slowing down. This comes despite the fact that the job she took up in 2005 bears little resemblance to her role today. Come to think of it, the Germany of then is a world away, too.

Rewriting the rulebook

Germany a decade ago was the sick man of Europe. Unemployment was at 12 per cent, a 70-year high, after three years of near-zero growth. Berlin avoided a budget-deficit fine from Brussels only by rewriting the EU rulebook.

Then came the German pope and the 2006 German World Cup. The world descended on a country many had never before visited and left, impressed, after a sunny, rain-free month. The hosts finished third but were left with a pleasant afterglow. Six decades after the Third Reich catastrophe, they realised, the world was ready to move on.

Germany’s emotional stock began to rise, giving the economy a lift as labour and welfare reforms began to kick in. Ten years on, things look very different.

Germany in 2015 is the strong woman of Europe: unemployment is at a historic low, of 6 per cent, and economic growth is forecast to hit almost 2 per cent this year. While much of Europe is in crisis, or struggling to recover, the Merkel republic is booming.

German exports are rolling out, young European jobseekers are flooding in. Germany’s cityscapes are crowded with cranes and scaffolding as international capital seeks a safe haven in uncertain times. This is Germany’s gilded age, overseen by Queen Angela.

Like most leaders, she is happy to let people here think their success is a completely home-grown affair, down to a mixture of hard work and readiness to reform.

But perhaps a reason the world cannot resist German luxury cars and kitchens is because the weak, crisis-racked euro makes them more affordable.

And what of Germany balancing its budget for the first time since the 1960s due, we hear, to strict budget discipline that others should mimic? That’s fine once you don’t mention Germany’s rusting bridges or, according to a study last week, a €100 billion budgetary windfall as nervous investors actually pay Berlin, through negative interest rates, to borrow their money in exchange for sovereign bonds.

There are many factors in the German success story, internal and external. But presiding over it all, like an unflappable television chef, is the unstoppable Angela Merkel, colloquially known as Mutti, the mammy of the nation.

Not everyone here is enamoured. Some see Germany in a self-satisfied stupor, a neo-Biedermeier wave similar to the conservative three decades between the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, and the European revolutions of 1848. Last year the German writer Juli Zeh dedicated a whole play to the phenomenon and called it – no surprise – Mutti. “Merkel is someone who says, ‘Let Mammy do this. You people out there are far away. I’ll take care of it,’ ” Zeh says.

Merkel’s success lies in reverse-engineering what average Germans want and selling it back to them at election time: the promise of security through a low-key, modest political style. Merkel is an anti-Donald Trump, but she is no less ambitious.

Quicker than her rivals, she realised that today’s Germans don’t like shouty, partisan politics and perfected a presidential style. In return voters have rewarded with her with three terms, and she is halfway through her second grand coalition with her political rivals.

“These days what we in Germany call political durchwursteln – muddling though – is no longer seen as a negative but as a political virtue that people reward,” Prof Manfred Güllner, of the Forsa polling agency, says. “Big issues are not what define Merkel. Her voters don’t want a Utopia or a big vision but simply to live a quiet life, from day to day.”

Merkel’s lair

Angela Merkel’s lair is a modernist block opposite the Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin; it is a sprawling structure that defies description, with all the charm of a drafty trade-fair hall.

Enter the main door, climb some stone steps on the right, and you double back to a long, high conference room marked by slatted blinds, angry modern art on the walls and a vast expanse of winter-green carpet – a colour that runs, like an aggressive mould, throughout the building.

Merkel can be charming or scowling, depending on her form, and as she strides in it’s clear that today is not going to be a charming one. In silence, she suffers the snapping photographers for exactly 20 seconds, then, by way of greeting, says: “I’d say we end this now or we’ll lose too much time.” Lips pursed, she waits.

Anyone who has watched press photographers know that they never give up easily. So, watching them retreat with unusual haste, I think to myself, That’s power at work right there.

As soon as she begins to talk I’m reminded of the first lesson of covering Merkel: don’t expect her to say anything new.

Why should she? She has analysed us as she has her political rivals, identified our weakness, and decided to exploit it ruthlessly. Journalists need quotes more than she needs coverage, she has realised, so they’ll take anything she gives them.

It’s an approach that is less Alastair Campbell-style spin and more the striptease philosophy of the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee: make them beg for more, then don’t give it to them.

Today’s meeting is a one-hour off-the-record briefing in which she talks a lot, says a little, smiles just twice and does one double-take, in my direction.

Given Ireland’s recent marriage-equality vote, I ask her, will she eventually push for gay marriage in Germany, or is she waiting for an opportune political moment?

Her eyes narrow, and her answer, although off the record, is no different from what she says elsewhere in public: she sees no majority at present for it in her ruling Christian Democratic Union(CDU). That’s me back in my box, so.

Emerging into the sunlight, you can either burn your notebook or marvel at being played by a politician at the peak of her powers. The thing about peaks, though, is that, eventually, the only way is down.

Precarious employment

The German economy is booming, but it is not impervious to outside shocks; nor is the boom being felt by those at the bottom. The 2003 labour-market deregulation introduced by the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder has cut the jobless rate but seen a spike in so-called precarious employment.

One in five working Germans, mostly women, now have “atypical” employment, often low-paid part-time jobs with no health benefits or pension rights – a time bomb for the future.

And 16 per cent of Germans now live at risk of poverty, meaning they earn less than 60 per cent of the median income. Although this rate is almost exactly the EU average, it’s a surprise given how much money you can still smell in Germany.

Look more closely at statistics and you see what’s happening. In the 1980s Germany’s richest 10 per cent earned five times as much as the poorest 10 per cent. Today they earn seven times as much.

Yet while international bodies warn of a slow erosion of Germany’s lower middle classes, Merkel’s critics say that in the crisis she’s exporting this German model to the rest of Europe.

Prof Cornelia Koppetsch, a sociologist and author of The Return of Conformity, says that the return of German prosperity has seen the the disassembling of the postwar Rhineland capitalist model and the rise of a culture of shareholder value.

“It’s strange that Germany has become a model for something that isn’t specifically German but is more Anglo-American,” she says. “What’s being sold abroad now as German is Merkel as the thrifty Swabian housewife. And, while thriftiness is typically German, I would argue that the pursuit of ever-higher profit at the cost of the individual is not.”

The decline is steady but not immediately visible, she says, as the middle classes use their reserves to protect their own. Add a ticking demographic time bomb, and pressure to innovate to maintain its industrial advantage, and it’s clear that Germany has some bumps in the road ahead. But Merkel is probably not planning to be in the driving seat when that happens.

For now, though, even figures well disposed have urged her to adopt to a new role commensurate with Germany’s postcrisis status. “Germany has created the impression that . . . austerity is the mother of prosperity, but that’s too one-sided, just as you cannot use deficit spending to compensate for structural reforms,” Prof Heinrich August Winkler, a leading historian, said in this week’s Süddeutsche Zeitung dailynewspaper.

To the communication-shy chancellor, he added diplomatically, “The government would be well advised to explain its goals patiently and in a way everyone can understand.”

But what are the goals of the Merkel’s government, particularly on Europe?

“We expect from you, as head of the largest and most powerful euro country, that you finally . . . say in which direction things should go,” Anton Hofreiter, the Green Party Bundestag leader, said during Wednesday’s debate on Greece.

From her seat on the government bench Merkel smiled a crooked smile and stayed silent.

Squeeze of expectation

Behind her satisfied smile, however, Germany’s pragmatist-in-chief is feeling the squeeze of expectation.

She is expected to drive on EU integration, keep Vladimir Putin in check on Ukraine and co-ordinate a European response to a refugee crisis set to bring 800,000 asylum seekers to Germany this year alone. And that’s before you even talk about the Middle East, energy security or climate change.

With the world’s tectonic plates in motion, Merkel watchers worry that her incrementalist approach to power is at odds with the scale of the challenges now being thrown her way.

“Germany was protected for decades by a circle of friends in the EU and Nato, so its security policy was limited in ambition, sort of like a coastal patrol,” Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says. “Now it’s working really hard to make the ship seaworthy. But it’s a struggle, and the waves are getting bigger all the time.”

A decade on, the challenge for Angela Merkel is this: how to navigate a series of interlinked global crises without a map, meeting the expectations of Germany’s international partners without endangering her Mutti formula for domestic political success.

For now the Merkel republic is a peaceful and prosperous place where its people are happier in themselves and with their leader. Next week I begin my journey around the Merkel republic as, in the world outside, uncertainty builds.

a
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.