Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Merkel’s Way

Colorless? Check. Boring? Check. Why the German model is the right path for Europe's new bigwigs.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

In the days after Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton were tapped for the new posts atop the European Union, the criticism from the assembled European press was nearly unanimous. It was also only half right. The journalists were correct to point out the EU's failure to promote leaders with the charisma and energy of a Tony Blair, or the expertise of a Carl Bildt, or the vision of a Joschka Fischer. They were right to say that Europe has likely abdicated for now the chance to develop a grand strategy to compete with the United States and China.

But they were wrong to suggest that any flaws on the part of Van Rompuy and Ashton are insurmountable. The EU's new leaders bear a remarkable resemblance in style and substance to one of the EU's current biggest players, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once pilloried by the press for being staid and boring and now a respected leader of the world's fourth-largest economy. She possesses an acknowledged mastery of consensus, promotes fuzzy lines of authority, uses occasional backroom ruthlessness, and has a vaguely articulated belief in her country's steady progress. It might not sound inspiring. But it's a model that Van Rompuy and Ashton, by temperament and necessity, are liable to follow.

In the days after Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton were tapped for the new posts atop the European Union, the criticism from the assembled European press was nearly unanimous. It was also only half right. The journalists were correct to point out the EU’s failure to promote leaders with the charisma and energy of a Tony Blair, or the expertise of a Carl Bildt, or the vision of a Joschka Fischer. They were right to say that Europe has likely abdicated for now the chance to develop a grand strategy to compete with the United States and China.

But they were wrong to suggest that any flaws on the part of Van Rompuy and Ashton are insurmountable. The EU’s new leaders bear a remarkable resemblance in style and substance to one of the EU’s current biggest players, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once pilloried by the press for being staid and boring and now a respected leader of the world’s fourth-largest economy. She possesses an acknowledged mastery of consensus, promotes fuzzy lines of authority, uses occasional backroom ruthlessness, and has a vaguely articulated belief in her country’s steady progress. It might not sound inspiring. But it’s a model that Van Rompuy and Ashton, by temperament and necessity, are liable to follow.

Ever since Merkel was first sworn into office in 2005, political journalists in Berlin have bemoaned her colorlessness and reticence. The German public, by contrast, has consistently given her approval ratings above 70 percent. Merkel’s rival politicians demanded more direction and drama; the public proved content with steadiness and platitudes.

The same elite-mass divide was mirrored in the reaction to the selection of Van Rompuy and Ashton. Journalists from Europe’s major newspapers unloaded days’ worth of negative editorials lamenting the continent’s self-exile to the perdition of obscurity. But meanwhile the European public shrugged, with no indication that their generally positive perception of the European Union had in any way been impaired.

Merkel has a keen sense for the strategic advantages of ambiguity. Never a risk-taker, throughout her steady accumulation and consolidation of power in Berlin, Merkel has prioritized consensus over setting bold agendas. Rather than publicly demand new directions, Merkel delegates other cabinet members to consider shifts in policy, while she presides over the discussion, ready at any time to tack in either direction as the political winds change.

This strategy allows her to take credit for popular decisions, while distancing herself from unpopular ones. Merkel allowed her rival Social Democrats (the SPD) to take the lead in setting an agenda for Germany during the four years she lead a "Grand Coalition" comprised of the SPD and her own Christian Democratic Union. But Merkel also instructed her party to co-opt the policies that polled well and proved successful — from the stimulus package that kept the country afloat after the onset of the financial crisis, to popular new parental leave policies, to the emphasis on fighting global warming. It was a strategy that frustrated some of Merkel’s own party members, but it led this year to the SPD’s worst electoral showing in German history and allowed Merkel to create her preferred coalition with the Free Democratic party.

Van Rompuy and Ashton will also no doubt embrace roles as moderators, rather than agenda-setters. In fact, the quickest way for the new leaders to threaten their own authority would be to overpromise, given the limitations of their positions. The European Council over which Van Rompuy will be presiding makes its decisions by unanimous consent of the 27 EU member states, as does the EU’s foreign-policy apparatus to be headed by Ashton. And Van Rompuy and Ashton will only be able to marginally sway the perceptions that other European countries have of their own national interests.

On the other hand, they have one major resource at their disposal: continuity. It’s a quality that no previous occupant of Van Rompuy’s new position has ever enjoyed. With the Lisbon Treaty having scrapped the member states’ half-yearly rotating presidencies of the EU, Van Rompuy will now have at least 30 months atop the European Council. The practical implications of such a change for politicking are obvious enough, with the council president now better equipped to pursue goals, build relationships, and make trade-offs that extend beyond the framework of six-month increments.

But, continuity is also bound to have a psychological and cultural impact on the European Union. Brussels’s old system of quickly shuffling and technocratic leadership discouraged the European polity from thinking in terms of a collective public good. Van Rompuy and Ashton are now in a position to become the public instantiation and repository of the EU’s cumulative successes. The very fact that they will now have a sustained presence atop Europe should contribute to the coherence of the union and over time bolster the expectation among Europeans that their national leaders ought to be contributing to effective continent-wide policy, not just looking out for parochial interests. In that way, Ashton and Van Rompuy have been given a foothold to challenge the notion of national sovereignty that national leaders have until now encouraged their constituents to take for granted.

Of course, to do that, they’ll need to maintain their credibility as model Europeans with the continent’s public at large: Just as Merkel takes pains to maintain her self-styled above-the-fray reputation as "chancellor for all Germans," Ashton and Van Rompuy will have to protect their abstract claim to representing all Europeans. Like Merkel, they should leave the tough talk and horse-trading for the backroom, while separating themselves in public from the narrow interests of particular parties and constituencies. Merkel has always unsentimentally guarded her own power against institutional rivals — she coolly organized the late 1990s intraparty putsch against her former patron, Helmut Kohl, that allowed her to take leadership of Germany’s Christian Democrats — but she knows that her public backing depends on her reputation as the country’s reserved "Mutti," or Mommy, who presides over and arbitrates national family fights.

Indeed, for all the editorial ink that has been dispensed lamenting the new EU heads’ lack of familiarity with world leaders like Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, it’s much more important, given the institutional constraints of their jobs, that Van Rompuy and Ashton feel comfortable calling the prime ministers of the European Union — and most of all, Merkel. Germany remains the continent’s biggest power broker. It is the continent’s biggest economy, the biggest contributor to the EU’s purse, and the only country with significant political ties with eastern and western Europe as well as Russia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy might posture, but Merkel is the European most able to change minds and turn votes. Characteristically, Merkel gave no news conference underscoring her support for the winning candidates. But anonymous sources in the German government have been especially keen to emphasize that she was the one who placed the phone call to Blair informing him that his candidacy had no chance.

Merkel has also already amply shown she has no trouble transferring to the international stage her keen sense of power dynamics. Merkel wants Ashton and Van Rompuy to succeed, but she has ensured that she will not be held responsible if they fail. It is no accident that she did not forward a German name for either position. And unlike Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, she made sure to cover up the tracks that would have linked her with the eventual winners.

Merkel instead put a close advisor into a lower-profile but similarly powerful position, the secretary-general of the EU Council of Ministers, and is working on filling the single EU-wide position with significant autonomy, the head of the European Central Bank. Merkel is said to be pushing for Axel Weber, a close colleague, to take over as central banker when Jean-Claude Trichet’s term expires in 2011. It’s an indication of the type of power scientists most covet, personally and politically: out of the spotlight and privileging slow, steady, measurable advancement.

In that way, there are worse fates for the EU than becoming more like Merkel’s Germany. True, it would be a place unconcerned about the pomp of politics. It might even be a place where politics is not foremost in the public’s mind. And the continent could, as a whole, become unconcerned with inventing a grand strategy to catch up with the United States and China. But, like Merkel, the EU will still be closely watching her competitors from the sidelines, waiting for the inevitable slip-up, ready with an elbow to dig in when it’s time.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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