THE German chancellor’s adaptability and openness to new ideas are among the traits that have helped to make her the world’s top politician, writes Michael Fry.
To WIN 98 per cent of the vote used to be an achievement nobody but communist dictators could count on. Angela Merkel just matched it when she was re-elected leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats at their party conference in Hanover.
The 58-year-old chancellor knows all about communism because she grew up in the old East Germany and only went into politics after the Berlin Wall fell. Still, she had no need to resort to manipulation or intimidation to get her desired result this week. It was a genuine vote of confidence in a woman looking to enter her third term of office after the national election due in the autumn of 2013. Problems aplenty lie on the road to the polls, but the loyalty of party members is not going to be one of them.
There must inevitably be a comparison with the other most powerful woman in the world to date, Margaret Thatcher, at the corresponding stage in her career. That would have been in 1987, when she faced an election at which she was bound to lose some of the huge majority she had won at the climax of her electoral career in 1983. The prospect was already a pretext for murmurings in her own ranks about her autocratic style and her refusal to tolerate any opposition or even questioning – not from Conservatives, let alone from anybody else. It was the start of the decay in her position which would bring her down before the next parliament was over.
Merkel will one day lose the top job too, but surely not amid the same high drama. Her method of doing politics is quite different. She is never confrontational, but cosy and confiding. She is never dogmatic, but discreet and disarming. Even Margaret Thatcher could at times let the ice-cold mask drop and resort to sex appeal to get her way. This expedient is hardly available to the dumpy Merkel with her shapeless trouser suits which, on the contrary, rather proclaim: “I do not use sex for political purposes.”
So what is it that has raised Merkel to a status, not only in national but also in global politics, reached by no other woman except Thatcher before? One of the main complaints about the German chancellor is that, far from being headstrong and dictatorial, she dithers far too long before coming to a decision. The whole sorry saga of the euro is in large part one of the Germans’ reluctance to crack the whip, and not just of the unwillingness of the debtor countries to face the horrible truth about themselves.
But in domestic policy, at least, Merkel’s softly-softly approach has proved more fruitful. The Christian Democratic Union party is built on a tradition of social provision in return for economic discipline. So, in times of recession too, its policies are even-handed and do not attract the charges of vindictiveness that tend in this country to dog every Tory effort at reform. In the current crisis it is the German Social Democrats that have been calling for cuts in public spending, since they also value balancing the books. But with the economy still growing, this does not seem the right time for drastic fiscal action.
It has been a consistent part of Merkel’s method to take the wind out of the political opposition’s sails, rather than to raise a storm in which its ships will sink. She narrows the differences among the parties instead of making them wider and deeper. Germany has in the past few years been pushing through a big reform of social security which prunes universal benefits, requires claimants to look for jobs and in general cuts the cost of the whole system. This was actually proposed by the Social Democrats when they were last in office but, without hesitation, the Christian Democrats took it over.
Defence was another area where, with the end of the Cold War, economies became not just possible but imperative. The Germans possess no nuclear deterrent so, unlike the British, are not faced with the vast cost of renewing it. But they did have national service for all young men. Merkel abolished it on the argument that standing armies eyeball-to-eyeball along a lengthy land frontier in central Europe is no longer necessary. Germany has, for the first time since the Second World War, deployed its army along with its allies in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan. Overall, however, defence has been cut. Not many right-wing governments do this.
Most extraordinary of all has been the chancellor’s appropriation of the Green agenda. German Greens are much more powerful than British Greens, sit in force in the Bundestag and could yet force Merkel out of office if, after next year’s election, they are able to form a coalition with the Social Democrats. But she will then be offering hardly less of a Green manifesto than they will. She is, after all, the one who has decided Germany will cease to produce nuclear power once the existing generators have reached the end of their useful lives. The gap will be filled by the wind and the waves. No other leading economy has been so bold.
All these are examples of Merkel’s suppleness and adaptability, her lack of strong ideological commitments and her corresponding willingness to take up good ideas wherever she can find them (they are also of a piece with her indecisiveness). It seems to me these traits must go back a long way. After all, she grew up under communism as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, and life for such children was usually not easy: they might be banned, for example, from higher education.
Yet she charmed her way through, got into the best university, Leipzig, and even won a national prize for her mastery of Russian, so that today she chats up Putin and Medvedev in their own language, just as she chats up Obama and Cameron in theirs. It was no less remarkable how – after the reunification of Germany – she, a novice from the East, wormed her way into then up the ranks of the Christian Democratic Union, a party run by male chauvinist provincial bosses. Chancellor Helmut Kohl used to dismiss her as das Mädchen – the Girl – but he could not stop her succeeding him.
Yet, despite this suppleness and adaptability, Merkel seldom appears to be all over the place in the way that Hollande and Cameron, or even Obama, let alone the hapless leaders of Spain and Greece, appear to be. Somehow she brings together the disparate elements in her political make-up to form a satisfactory whole, at least so far as to convince voters when they compare her with the alternatives.
Her ultimate success will depend, of course, on her skill in selecting those disparate elements, since by the nature of the case her choice is wide. Probably history will judge her by the fate of the euro, and that is in the lap of the gods. But until it is decided, one way or another, she can reasonably be counted as the most successful politician in the world.