18 Sep 2013

Angela Merkel: the anti-Iron Lady

Angela Merkel, who stands on the cusp of a third election victory in Sunday’s poll, is arguably the most powerful politician in the western world.

President Obama keeps getting his wings clipped. President Hollande never even grew them to take off with after his election victory, which now seems like ancient history, and David Cameron has had one wing tied by his coalition partners and the other by his restive backbenchers.

So that leaves Angela Merkel, basking in 60-plus approval ratings, presiding over the lowest unemployment rate in two decades while the rest of Europe is still licking its wounds. She is the undisputed, if uncrowned, leader of a fractious continent.

What’s at stake in this election? I asked a wise German friend. “Only the future of Europe and Europe’s role in the world,” she retorted archly. But judging from the campaign this election is about such globally transformative issues as motorway taxes for foreigners or the prospect of veggie day in German canteens.


These may be the luxuries of a peaceful and prosperous society but they also smack of  a German sense of self-denial about its true clout in Europe. Although Berlin has effectively been dictating the terms of economic recovery to the likes of Italy, Spain and Greece, it doesn’t want the conversation to become too political. It doesn’t want to be drawn on its political vision for Europe because that would involve a frank debate about leadership, and leadership – or Fuehrung – is still a term that makes Germans wince.

It is very strange to have moved from the US, a nation whose obsession with its exceptional destiny and the global leadership hint at fears that it is losing both, to a country that is living in a bubble of denial about its true power. Although Angela Merkel smiles benignly from posters promising strength and safety, she offers above all reassurance and continuity. A supreme party tactician who thinks with the quiet logic of a trained physicist and learned from her upbringing in Stasi East Germany to keep her cards close to her chest, Angela Merkel shies away from the grand gesture.

Although she has out-manouvered some of the country’s most powerful male politicians, she is the anti-Iron Lady. More minx than matron. I once witnessed George W Bush give her a back rub at a G8 summit. She purred with delight. Can you imagine Chancellor Kohl doing the same to the late Baroness Thatcher?

Angela Merkel’s nickname is Mutti or Mummy. This combination of sharp elbows and benign manners is fine for building and managing coalitions at home. She may even end up, as once before, leading a grand coalition with the opposition Social Democrats after Sunday’s vote (Just imagine David Cameron and Ed Miliband doing the same).

But it is not in Frau Merkel’s DNA to exert a leadership role in Europe and the German people don’t expect it. Once asked what her country’s greatest achievement was she answered: window seals and double glazing.

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