The Forever Chancellor
Angela Merkel was supposed to face a serious threat to her leadership this year. It turns out she knows Germans better than they know themselves.
It’s time to admit there’s a chance Angela Merkel will be chancellor of Germany forever. Her only real rival in terms of political longevity on the world stage is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who of course isn’t subject to democratic laws of gravity. But Merkel has defied so many such laws over the course of her career that it’s hard to know if there are any that still apply to her, including the most basic — that power plus time equals public fatigue.
With a dozen years under her belt in Germany’s highest political office and a national election approaching in September, this was supposed to be the year that Merkel’s leadership came under threat. Her rivals in the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) overcame their recent pattern of bumbling by nominating a candidate, Martin Schulz, widely considered a plausible head of government. That was in January. Since then, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has decisively won two state elections and is threatening to win a third next Sunday, in North Rhine-Westphalia — Germany’s most populous state, a traditional SPD stronghold. Germans are already whispering Schulz’s candidacy may not survive next weekend. Either way, Merkel seems to have little to fear in her reelection bid: The most recent national poll gives her a lead of 11 points.
What’s strange about Merkel’s record of electoral success is how consistently she has confirmed the adage that policy failures are an unavoidable part of politics, while avoiding its corollary: that erosions of public support are inevitable, too. The mystery, however, lies less with Merkel than the German public — or, rather, with Merkel’s assessment of what the public wants and expects from politics. That assessment speaks well of Merkel’s intuition. It speaks less well of Germany’s political maturity.
Consider Merkel’s handling of the euro crisis. In contrast to France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned with an impassioned endorsement of the European project and specific plans for permanently reforming it — including a joint EU finance minister and common euro bonds — Merkel has never offered anything of the sort. When Merkel has been obliged to discuss Europe’s economic future, she has typically relied on hollow phrases about the need for “more Europe” and vague warnings about how “the failure of the euro would mean the failure of Europe.” Her lack of vision even prompted rare criticism from Germany’s recent former president, Joachim Gauck, who publicly blamed her for “a lack of energy to tell the population very openly what is really happening.”
Merkel’s reticence is partly a matter of her personality. But chalking up Merkel’s hesitance in the euro crisis to her temperament or biography fails to appreciate the strategy informing it. Merkel has long believed that Germans, above all, want prudence from their politicians. An object lesson arrived in 2005, after her first run to become chancellor. Merkel received only 35 percent of the vote — enough to take office, but only by forming a coalition with the rival SPD. That disappointing showing was widely attributed to her detailed plans for tax cuts, which her opponents portrayed as a radical plan to redistribute wealth to the rich.
Since then, Angela Merkel has had a rather disillusioned understanding of German political culture. A recent Merkel biography by the German journalist Nikolaus Blome described a study commissioned by the SPD in 2006, which seemed to confirm that theory. It presented two findings: First, the German public didn’t like the reforms passed by Merkel’s government in its first year; second, when the public was presented with arguments and data justifying the reforms, it liked them even less. “Even if there were a revolution underway, Germans would only want to be told about it afterwards,” she told her advisors afterward, according to Blome.
In domestic politics, her signature political method has been an expression of that cynical assessment. Call it leading-from-behind on steroids. Rather than initiate political discussions, she generally allows other politicians to debate issues of their own choosing; Merkel steps in only when a consensus has formed among the public that a particular reform is indispensable. Germans have come to accept this as Merkel’s style in domestic politics on matters ranging from mandatory military conscription (she was for it before she was against it), nuclear power (ditto), and a national minimum wage (against it before she was for it). In instances like her decision not to intervene in Libya, and to resist calls from the United States for more troops in Afghanistan, Merkel’s decision-making was simplified by the fact that German society had already reached a firm consensus on matters of national sovereignty. In all these cases, she’s gotten credit for pushing popular measures, while managing to keep her fingerprints off any positions with even the slightest potential of alienating the public.
It’s gone less remarked upon that she has handled European politics in precisely the same fashion. Invited to give a speech in 2009 setting out her vision for Europe’s future, she admitted that her vagueness about her intentions was a deliberate strategy, not an accidental oversight. “I don’t think much of these debates,” she said. “I think they contribute to citizens losing trust in the EU of the present.” From Merkel’s perspective, high-flying proposals to fundamentally restructure the European economy are nothing more than fantasies — a psychological balm for Europe’s economic victims, and an invitation for the Continent’s would-be revolutionary politicians to indulge in vanity. There’s a political calculus at work here, too: She intuitively understands that these aggressive positions alienate the German public that is her country’s ultimate decision-maker.
Merkel appreciates that Germany has become the de facto leader of the European Union. But she also thinks that most Germans sooner privilege the comforts of security — in terms of economic well-being and psychological peace of mind — over the responsibilities that come with power. Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, famously said, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” In German culture, a crisis is by definition a waste of one’s own energy.
Merkel’s insistence on austerity in exchange for economic assistance has never just been a defense of German interests or a stubborn insistence on enforcing moral hazard. (Though it has also been those things.) It’s also been her method for slowly educating the German public about — or, perhaps more accurately, coercing them into appreciating — the need for further intervention and deeper integration into the EU.
For Merkel, Europe’s worsening economic crisis has been a critical lever to simultaneously extract concessions from governments on the European periphery and from a parochial German public. It should be no surprise that, while Merkel officially greeted Macron’s victory in France, she has permitted her political allies to aim a barrage of criticism at his program for the EU. Macron has said he hopes to pool liability for various kinds of debt: A completed banking union would ensure bailout costs for individual financial institutions be distributed across the continent rather than borne by individual countries, and the so-called Eurobonds would allow national governments to borrow money against a joint continental credit rating. German conservatives have responded coolly to these ideas. “Neither the eurozone nor France suffer from too little debt,” Deputy Finance Minister Jens Spahn said this week.
One staff member of the Bundestag told me that many German politicians believe Merkel’s long-term strategy toward Europe has always been to play good cop to the dual-headed bad cop of Germany’s Bundesbank and its Constitutional Court. Though she has warned repeatedly that the German Constitutional Court could declare various European bailout measures to be unconstitutional, that’s usually meant that she was waiting for street protests on the European periphery to elicit her endorsement for the proposals on behalf of reluctant Germans.
There’s no reason to think Merkel’s modus operandi will change now. Economic and political logic demand that Merkel eventually initiate changes to how the EU works. But she won’t be rushed, because she doesn’t believe Germans will abide the drama. And that’s precisely why the German electorate will continue to reward her.
Merkel’s leadership style has often raised the costs of the crisis across Europe (including Germany), but it’s hard to argue with her effectiveness in winning over the German public. The major opposition parties, aside from the fringe right-wing upstart Alternative for Germany, have basically ceased attacking Merkel’s EU policies, and the euro crisis seems unlikely to figure much in the pending election campaign at all.
If Merkel again wins reelection this September, it will partly be because of her anodyne affect in the face of Europe’s prolonged economic calamity, and for her patent refusal to say how she envisions the crisis ever ending. That same affect has provoked anger, even disgust, in those parts of Europe suffering economic pain, and, one imagines, among the various leaders on the European stage she has seen come and go. But both sides have managed to drastically misunderstand Merkel’s leadership. If she enters the history books for her achievements, it will be to the extent she has won favor with Germans by making it seem she was never interested in the history books to begin with.
Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration