Germany and Merkel: too good to beat?

Image description: caricature showing Angela Merkel

The current German election campaign is not proceeding in a very Germanic way. There is a fluidity, an unpredictability, a volatility to this election campaign, where neither Armin Laschet (CDU), Annalena Baerbock (Alliance 90/The Greens), or Olaf Scholz (SPD) are inspiring much confidence or certainty in Germans. It is telling that Scholz, who Germans would most like to see as Chancellor according to a recent poll by ARD/Deutschlandtrend, is the candidate who most resembles Merkel; he is a sober professional and technocratic politician. He eschews ideology.

Yet he has not transformed his party’s image, but merely polished it. His SPD, like the UK’s Labour Party, is still not seen as credible or competent enough to be trusted to lead. Laschet cannot escape the perception that he is a lightweight, albeit a jovial one, and Baerbock is struggling to appeal to voters who would not usually vote Green and who fear that there will be a steep rise in the cost of living if the Greens enter government.

Germans may not yet realise it, but they have lost the most before a single vote is counted. This is because Angela Merkel is not running for re-election. As Armin Laschet and Annalena Baerbock prove to be reliable and efficient gaffe machines, the quiet effectiveness of Merkelism may come to attract greater appreciation in Germany and in the international community. So what is Merkelism?

Firstly, let us examine Merkel herself, because Thatcherism was shaped by Thatcher, Blairism by Blair. Any ‘ism’ in politics does not simply grow organically from a set of abstract principles, but is sculpted for political reality by its owner.

Angela Merkel is the antithesis of the charismatic politician Max Weber discussed in his 1919 essay, ‘Politics as a Vocation.’ She does not inspire a mass or even a cadre of devout followers. As biographers of Merkel such as Stefan Kornelius and Matthew Qvortrup have illustrated, Merkel possesses a preternatural equanimity, patience and appetite for work. These qualities mean that Merkel does not rush into decisions, but agonisingly analyses the different solutions to political, economic and environmental problems. She leaves her decisions to the latest possible moment, which are made based on cold, calculating logic. She can be a forensic, ferocious negotiator and became adept at hammering out compromises at the EU’s Berlaymont building late into the night and morning.

“Germans may not yet realise it, but they have lost the most before a single vote is counted”.

Her negotiating skills and ability to find a compromise mean that she is the perfect fit for Germany, where politicians are continually constrained by the electoral system. The requirement for coalitions and the frequent changes in the composition of coalitions meant that Merkel has governed with the SPD (the centre-left party in Germany) for twelve out of her sixteen years in power.

Merkelism is not an ideology, but an approach to politics that is founded on the importance of negotiation, compromise and the view that politics can be a positive sum game. There are also two core values at the heart of Merkelism. Firstly, Merkel has sought to protect the integrity of the Eurozone. This was clear when many in her party and even Wolfang Schäuble (her then finance minister) supported a ‘Grexit’ from the Eurozone during the Euro crisis, but Merkel remained stiffly opposed.

She may not possess the same emotional and impassioned commitment to Europe as her mentor Helmut Kohl did, but the depth of her commitment to European stability ought to be measured by deeds, not words. She was prepared to compromise to ensure that David Cameron could leave Brussels during his renegotiation of UK membership with at least some political capital to take home with him for the referendum campaign. Brexit was after all not a European failure, but a failure of the British political class to convince its electorate of the benefits of EU membership.

Secondly, Merkel has also sought to defend the rules-based international order from threats such as Putin’s Russia. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Merkel led the West’s response, as she threw her weight behind economic sanctions against Russia, despite the damage it caused to German industry in the short run. She also played a decisive role in the expulsion of Russia from what was then the G8. Merkel demonstrated to Putin that military manoeuvres could be defeated by diligent diplomacy supported by economic sanctions.

There is a duality to Merkel, as with many other politicians. There is the Merkel who commissioned 600 government polls between 2009 and 2013 to help her shape government policy. She has at times been a prisoner not of ideology or of party, but a prisoner of polls.  Then there is the Merkel who was bolder than any other European politician during the refugee crisis. She allowed one million refugees (mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) to enter Germany between 2014-16. Today, there are more refugees living in Germany than in France and the UK combined. In this act alone, Merkel helped Germany to become a beacon of liberal, open and compassionate politics. She was bold, because she did not retreat into employing instruments of convenience and expediency, that being nativism or populism, but instead she made a decision that was truer to her party’s Christian democratic instincts than any other decision she made in power.

“Merkel demonstrated to Putin that military manoeuvres could be defeated by diligent diplomacy supported by economic sanctions”.

It is not wise to be misty-eyed or sentimental about the Merkel years, because there are failures. Germany’s infrastructure, especially in the West, is creaking. The country lags behind in capturing the benefits of digitalisation. The integration of refugees has not been a success everywhere and Germany could have been far more ambitious in tackling climate change, especially when they had a quantum physicist in charge.

Today, when the candidates for Chancellor are stumbling and fumbling, producing blunder after faux pas, let us remember Merkel.

Sometimes you only realise what you have when it is gone.

Image credit: DonkeyHotey