Angela Merkel stands head and shoulders above her euro neighbours and deserves greater recognition, says Bill Jamieson
A strange, sulphurous mood has entered politics. We are warned we may be seeing the end of conventional parties and leaderships through lack of popular support. Austerity is killing them. In Italy, the politics of austerity has been dealt a crippling blow by Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian turned charismatic rebel who has put the stability, not just of his country but the entire eurozone, back on the line.
As if this was not enough, the disgraced Silvio Berlusconi is not just back on the pitch but in the centre circle, a renegade player for whom no red card seems big enough to keep him on the sidelines.
In Spain, a government ostensibly pledged to an austerity programme has just announced its intention to bring in a series of tax reductions for which there is no money: so much for pledges of fiscal discipline.
In the UK, David Cameron’s Conservatives are increasingly at odds with their leader and his failure to hold core supporters. There is talk of leadership challenges. If Conservative commentators were not nervous enough ahead of this extraordinary defection of core supporters, then they must be near a nervous breakdown now. The political survival of Cameron is in doubt.
This restless mood carries the potential not only to disrupt conventional politics but also the fragile process in bringing Europe’s finances and its economies back to some measure of stability.
But there is one figure who stands head and shoulders above her rivals as a model of quiet, undemonstrative, almost invisibly exercised power and stability. Faced with intense pressures both within her country and without, hers is a persona whose very anti-charisma has arguably become the most charismatic power in Europe.
Step forward Angela Dorothea Merkel, chancellor of Germany since 2005, the first woman and the first former East German to hold the post. On current poll ratings, she now stands to receive a massive endorsement in the German federal elections in September.
In discussions on political leadership in Europe, she is routinely passed over. She is relatively little known in Britain. Her achievements are rarely acknowledged, while the fleeting, insubstantial and meretricious are bathed in the eerie moonshine of celebrity. She incurs no great enthusiasm or endorsement. She is regarded as we might regard a fading piece of 1970s kitchen furniture: dull but workmanlike, always there, boringly functional, no attention deserved, none necessary.
For reasons I find hard to fathom, I notice among women in politics here little by way of praise or admiration of her. On the contrary: mention of her name more often triggers a stream of ad feminem criticism and complaint on her appearance: “those sailor’s trousers”; “those ghastly boxy jackets”; “can’t she do something with that hair?”
A home-grown Angela Merkel here would risk being verbally pelted to death by feminist columnists, for it seems the deadly sin of our soured politics today is not failure, it is to be dull. And as observation on female appearance is terrain no man dare enter even with a missile-repellent shield and flame-retardant suit, male defenders shrink from the most basic chivalry in her defence.
How wrong this is, and a wrong that needs righting. Let’s start with the remarkable endurance of Angela Merkel: her stoic performance in the face of the colossal pressures placed upon her in those eight years.
No person played a greater role in dealing with the massive eurozone sovereign debt crisis than Merkel. The daughter of an East German pastor and a chemist by training, she has been president of the European Council and has chaired the G8 summit. Likened to Margaret Thatcher and nicknamed “the Iron Frau”, she is seen as de facto leader of the European Union and has been ranked as the world’s second most powerful person by Forbes magazine, the highest ranking ever reached by a woman.
Last December, the conservative CDU party congress confirmed her as leader with 97.9 per cent backing. In opinion polls, support for the CDU stands at a winning 40 per cent. In polls for the chancellorship, her support has stretched to 54 per cent, while Peer Steinbrück, her social democratic challenger, languishes at 36 per cent.
Arguably most remarkable of all in the face of a sluggish economy and colossal pressure on the country’s finances, 62 per cent say the federal government is doing a “rather good” job – the highest approval rating since 2009. Not only has she had to work to keep Germany’s economy on the rails but also to fulfil the role of Europe’s crisis manager.
What is the explanation of Merkel’s extraordinary resilience and popularity? Her chancellorship is portrayed as humdrum and down to earth. But there is nothing humdrum about it. Hers is an astonishing political story and a chancellorship of intellectual complexity and paradox.
She heads a right-leaning political party, but has built a domestic following through support of social welfare as well as labour market reforms. Considered ponderous and glacially slow in decision-making, she announced the termination of Germany’s nuclear power plants in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster in April 2011 with what seemed breath-taking speed and verve. It was seen as a headstrong, reckless gamble. But she had come to read the mood in Germany with piercing intuition: she recognised, sooner than any senior politician, that Germany had come to be an anti-nuclear nation.
But it is not just the way she has stood firm defending Germany’s interests in the mega picture of eurozone turmoil. She has shown a concern for micro issues, ranging from tax cuts for hotel owners to social care benefits. How David Cameron must drool with envy.
As the euro crisis unfolded, Merkel became the continent’s pre-eminent leader. She has coped with domestic pressure to be tough and unyielding on “Club Med” economies seeking bail-outs and pleadings from continental leaders to hold the EU project together: two bolting horses she has managed with skill. Resentment of Germany and her reluctance to throw open the coffers of the European Central Bank saw her caricatured in the rubbish-strewn streets of Athens as a new Hitler.
While holding out against projects such as the creation of euro bonds, she worked discreetly to make euro support conditional on bringing national budgets under control. The European Stability Mechanism, late and still not fully tested, owes much to her. Validation of her approach came with a subsequent seal of approval from the fiercely independent and legally astringent Constitutional Court in Germany.
I do not agree with her integrationist strategy and where this will ultimately lead. And I have never shared her commitment to the euro. But, then, many German voters have become sceptical of this project and the burden of its consequence for Europe’s biggest economy and its hard-won resilience.
But how ironic that without her, the continuing circus that is Italian politics would have been cut short long before now, and Spain and others forced to an earlier moment of truth in their national finances.
Across sulphurous Europe and its noisy “charismatic” rebels, we should recognise the quiet charisma of Angela Merkel more than we do.