Merkel’s meetings highlight gap between young and old
Rostock event shows next generation of German voters reject her style of politics
German chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a school in Rostock. Photograph: Steffen Kugler
At 61, Angela Merkel knows there are many things she will never be in this life: a mother, a professional ice skater – her childhood dream – or a dynamic public speaker.
To get around this last failing, her advisers have of late devised a “citizens’ dialogue” format, allowing her to sell her politics while playing to her down- to-earth strengths.
Called “Living Well in Germany”, the series of town hall meetings is ostensibly about the German leader listening to the priorities of ordinary Germans.
The scathing reviews by attending journalists overlook the fact that they are not the intended audience.
Alongside her weekly podcast and other online activities, these meetings are part of a long-term strategy by Merkel to bypass the media and reach ordinary Germans directly.
Security and production people swarm around the school gymnasium where 30 pupils sit on two rows of curved benches in what looks like an expensive television set.
As they wait for the chancellor to arrive, a 30-something moderator dressed in a blue blazer, jeans, and runners – hey, I’m cool, kids! – asks the pupils to get up and stretch.
Not all can – he’s forgotten this is an integration school and many are in wheelchairs – but never mind, here’s the lady boss.
Angela Merkel looks the same as always in her tightly-buttoned lemon-lime blazer.
Within seconds her fingertips click together as if magnetic before her stomach in her famous “Merkel diamond” gesture – her non-verbal signal to Germans that all is well. It’s her equivalent of the Bat signal.
When the six cameras start moving around the set, streaming the events via the internet to schools across Germany, Merkel tells her audience here how “it’s important that my work brings me joy . . . and that I have friends and get on with my husband, that I have time to cook or work in the garden.”
Pupils have held workshops to identify issues important to them, from animal welfare to the optimum density of rubbish bins.
Though this was still East Germany a quarter of a century ago, none of these post-unity teens asks a single east-west question.
Their integration concerns are about other barriers: like why companies who refuse to employ people with physical disabilities can pay a fine to free themselves from obligations under Germany’s equality legislation.
Pressed by the pupils for a concrete answer, Merkel says: “I have to get a political majority, business has to say they’re not burdened as a result, but I will take your point with me.”
It’s a glimpse into how the centre-right leader works: if there’s no majority for an issue, or it costs business money, don’t expect me to work up a sweat.
Then, from nowhere, comes the moment that will make this Rostock meeting notorious.
Reem Sahwil introduces herself, a 14-year-old girl with long, dark locks from a Palestinian refugee family.
They came to Germany four years ago from a camp in Lebanon, she says, but are still living in limbo while their asylum application is processed.
“I live here, but I don’t know how my future looks,” she said. “I have goals like everyone else but it’s hard to look on as others enjoy life and I can’t.”
The German leader, standing a few metres away from her, begins a Merkellian answer: it must be hard to have to wait for an asylum decision, she says, but not all those who apply to stay can do so.
Then, as she promises that application processing will be speeded up, she stops talking. Why? Reem has dissolved into tears.
After a moment’s hesitation Merkel goes over and pats the girl on the head, telling her she’s done very well.
“She’s not crying because she’s done well, Mrs Chancellor,” says the blue-jacketed host, “but because it’s a very trying situation.”
“I know that,” snaps Merkel, “but I still want to comfort her.”
Within hours the clip has gone viral, generating waves of online outrage. Following the debate, I wonder what the reaction would have been if Merkel had given in to political temptation and promised to intervene?
In a split-second decision, Angela Merkel refused to play parish pump politics.
The crying girl excitement overshadowed another remarkable pupil at the Rostock event.
“Why is it so controversial?” he asks.
Merkel tries out her standard answer on him: that, for her personally, marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but that discrimination of gay couples should not be allowed.
But Peter’s not buying it and keeps at her, like an energetic terrier.
Eventually the chancellor says: “I sense you’ll only be happy when I say I back marriage equality. Do you all feel this way?” All heads nod.
“Schön” – grand – she says, aghast, moving swiftly on.
Things wrap up soon after that with a group photo but, in her car, I imagine Angela Merkel replaying the events in her mind and having a Scooby Doo-style “you meddling kids!” moment.
Her soft focus event, designed to sell brand Angela, had gone astray.
After she leaves, I ask Peter Stein what he thinks of the German leader. She’s a good chancellor, he says, she seems nice and doesn’t want to make far-reaching promises.
“But I did notice her body language more tense at the end than before,” he says, solemnly.
By asking pointed questions, and pressing for answers that never came, these pupils exposed Angela Merkel like few ever do.
Her “small-steps” style of politics may appeal to their parents, but the next generation of voters are so unimpressed there’s a new verb in German – Merkeln — which means to hesitate, to buy time, to decide by not deciding.
After Rostock it’s clear that even Angela Merkel’s style of politics has a best-before date.