Eight years in, and more popular than ever
The start of 2013 looked grim for the German chancellor, but she parlayed Europe’s strongest economy into her country’s biggest electoral victory in decades
Even political leaders jump the shark. Suddenly their once fresh personality becomes drearily predictable and their style of governance, uplifting at first, slides down the scale to somewhere between stale and grating. That moment tends to arrive at the seven-year itch of their reign. Seven years is roughly when Stephen Harper began to stall in public esteem. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, too. Every two-term U.S. president since Nixon has limped through his eighth year (Reagan due to scandal, Clinton to philandering, Dubya to idiocy), and it’s a fair likelihood the current one will too. The French, steeped for generations in revolutionary brine, always seem eager to show outgoing presidents the door.
And then there’s Angela Merkel, the stiff, stern German chancellor. This past year—her eighth in power—started with a drubbing for her Christian Democratic Union party in state elections, a telltale sign she, too, had worn out her welcome. That’s certainly how it looked to many outsiders, and they had plenty of other factors to point to beyond the clock winding down. Merkel’s handling of the euro currency crisis had bred resentment beyond her country’s borders: a Pew research poll in May showed that people across Europe considered Germany the least compassionate and most arrogant country in the union. The Economist blamed her for making Europe’s crippling recession last far longer, and bite much deeper, than it should have. Moreover, the euro crisis has acted like a political grim reaper: since the crisis first broke in 2009, no incumbent eurozone government has survived an election, and at the beginning of the year, it looked like it was finally coming for her.
Within Germany, however, perceptions were different. That same Pew study showed Germans to be much more optimistic than any other in Europe about their economy, their personal prospects and the future of the eurozone. While the rest of Europe flailed in the face of a soaring jobs crisis—double-digit unemployment rates across the EU, spiking above 25% in Spain and Greece—Germany’s jobless rate fell by half to just over 5%. In September Germany’s foreign trade surplus topped $29 billion, a new record. While its EU neighbours have complained that Germany’s export power is harming other euro economies, German manufacturing prowess—and the premium prices its goods command—is a matter of national pride that Merkel has refused to cede to Brussels.
Steeliness is not Merkel’s only political asset, although it is her most defining. Even so, Germans have warmed to her personality: her tics and quirks have become strangely beloved, such as her tendency to hold her hands at her waist with thumbs and forefingers touching—a pose that has widely come to be known as “the chancellor rhombus.”
Her childhood under Communist rule in the former East Germany is the subject of intense fascination in a country that is still patching up relations between its eastern and western halves. Some six books were published about her this year, including one that claims she served as “secretary for agitation and propaganda” for East Germany’s communist youth. Merkel quickly denied the claim, though she needn’t have bothered. Even if it were true, the notion of her as an agitator only provokes chuckles from citizens who have grown accustomed to her poker face.
But if Germans have taken eight years to finally appreciate her, Merkel’s appeal was also buffeted by an eventful 2013, one in which she showed she can still surprise on the policy front. She changed Germany’s stance on Turkey: she’d been hampering that country’s negotiations to join the eurozone since taking office in 2005, but in January reversed course and even led the push to restart talks with a February visit to Istanbul. She backed the purchase of weaponized drones for the German military—a plan since halted, but one that nonetheless fed the “Iron Frau” comparisons to Margaret Thatcher. She also showed her mettle when she led all of Europe in denouncing the U.S. government after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in June that the NSA had been spying on its allies, even at the highest levels of government—a confrontation that culminated with a direct call from Merkel to Barack Obama to ask, “Have you been bugging my phone?”
For September’s Bundestag elections the CDU decided to build its entire campaign around Merkel. It was a counterintuitive move: she is a notoriously bad campaigner, prone to giving up large leads in the polls before squeaking past the finish line.
Not this time. Her main challenger, the Social Democrats’ Peer Steinbrück, doomed his own campaign when he posed for Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin giving the world the finger. Global media took notice, and everyone had a bit of a laugh, but in Germany they knew: Chancellor Merkel would never be so stupid. She was promptly re-elected, with the CDU receiving 41.5% of the vote and 311 seats in the Bundestag, falling a mere five short of forming Germany’s first majority government since 1957.
That five-seat deficit forced Merkel’s Christian Democrats to search for a coalition partner, a process that took two months and left a spate of key issues, both within Germany and at the EU level, unaddressed in the meantime. But in late November Merkel appeared at a press conference with the leader of the centre-left Social Democrats to unveil a whopping 185-page agreement. Merkel gave more ground than she would have preferred: the deal will lower Germany’s retirement age for some workers, and promises a $12.20 minimum wage, a policy unpopular with German business. The SPD must still put the agreement to a membership vote, which further extends the uncertainty. Several pundits speculated, tongue-in-cheek, that Merkel wore a bright green suit to the press conference as a subliminal threat: she would drop the SPD for its rival Green Party if they gave her any trouble. But her body language—the ever-neutral chancellor rhombus—betrayed nothing.
That’s the style that has characterized Merkel from the start: pragmatism, compromise, negotiation—but unwilling to brook any nonsense, and always ready with Plan B. It’s hard to imagine Merkel’s hot-headed, bird-flipping rival having either the stamina or the temperament to succeed in such intense negotiations. But then, few European leaders have shown her mettle, and in any comparison she comes out on top. From Italy’s libidinous Silvio Berlusconi to France’s preening Nicholas Sarkozy to Greece’s dithering George Papandreou, it’s Europe’s leading men who have been the irrational hysterics. Angela Merkel never loses her cool—and she has outlasted them all.