THE RISE AND FALL OF GER­MANY’S PRAG­MA­TIST

The un­der­es­ti­mated east­erner steered Ger­many through cri­sis. But her pact with vot­ers fi­nally shat­tered

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - 2018 REVIEW - Derek Scally in Ber­lin

Eastern Ger­many’s lonely Baltic coast is a beau­ti­ful if des­o­late place at any time of year. Since 1990 it has been the con­stituency of An­gela Merkel. Al­though she was born in Ham­burg and raised 90 min­utes out­side what was once East Ber­lin, her po­lit­i­cal base since en­ter­ing pol­i­tics has been the state of Meck­len­burg-West­ern Pomera­nia, on the Pol­ish bor­der.

Af­ter al­most three decades Merkel is pre­par­ing her de­par­ture from the po­lit­i­cal stage: hand­ing over the reins of her rul­ing Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union while re­main­ing as Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor un­til 2021 at the lat­est.

Al­though s he is j ust 64, t oday’s 18- year- old Ger­mans can­not re­mem­ber the time be­fore her. And this as a late starter in pol­i­tics who, with her mousy de­meanour and watch­ful eyes, stum­bled into pol­i­tics in 1989, af­ter the Ber­lin Wall fell. Months later she found her­self sit­ting at the cabi­net as a “quota” pro­moted by Hel­mut Kohl, as unity chan­cel­lor, to fill his cabi­net quota of East Ger­mans – or Os­sis, or eastern­ers, to the for­mer West Ger­many’s Wes­sis – and women.

“I was a very ef­fi­cient ap­point­ment,” she joked two weeks ago. “I was still rel­a­tively young for pol­i­tics – 35 – came from the east and was a woman, so I ticked three boxes.”

An iconic pho­to­graph, as strik­ing as a Ver­meer paint­ing, shows a young Merkel, con­spic­u­ously in­con­spic­u­ous in a boy­ish hair­cut and denim skirt, sit­ting with fish­er­men in their hut on the is­land of Rü­gen, in her con­stituency. Sun streams through the win­dow as they drink schnapps. The men later said she had lis­tened, asked in­tel­li­gent ques­tions and ex­pressed no opin­ions – echo­ing what many would say in decades to come. “She gave the im­pres­sion that she un­der­stood us,” one said.

My favourite Merkel anec­dote comes from the CDU politi­cian Paul Krüger, who, like Merkel, was re­cruited to the Kohl unity cabi­net in 1990. In Bonn the two Os­sis met each week to of­fer one other moral sup­port in their bat­tle against shinier, more pol­ished West Ger­man politi­cians. Then, one week, Merkel ar­riv­ing with a gleam in her eye. “What the Wes­sis know, we can learn,” she told him. “But what we know, they can’t learn: our train­ing fa­cil­ity has closed for good.”

Within a decade the un­der­es­ti­mated Ossi had risen from Kohl’s Mäd­chen to his po­lit­i­cal ex­e­cu­tioner: snatch­ing the CDU lead­er­ship af­ter a do­na­tions scan­dal, sidelin­ing all ri­vals and squeez­ing into power, with the nar­row­est of ma­jori­ties, in 2005.

In the 13 years since then, mostly with com­fort­able grand- coali­tion ma­jori­ties, she has steered Ger­many rel­a­tively un­scathed through global po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial crises and now leaves be­hind a pros­per­ous coun­try of record em­ploy­ment, steady growth and a bal­anced bud­get.

This is a Ger­many more at peace with it­self than ever be­fore – yet clouds are gath­er­ing on the hori­zon: rust­ing in­fra­struc­ture, a de­mo­graphic time bomb, a grow­ing gap be­tween haves and have-nots, and un- an­swered in­te­gra­tion ques­tions.

Ever the prag­ma­tist, Merkel re­versed pol­icy – twice – on nu­clear en­ergy; five decades af­ter the first re­ac­tor opened, and four years be­fore the last re­ac­tor goes from the grid, Ger­many still has nei­ther guar­an­teed its “en­ergy tran­si­tion” re­new­ables sup­ply and in­fra­struc­ture nor found a per­ma­nent home for its nu­clear waste.

Her early cli­mate suc­cesses – she played a cru­cial role in what be­came the Ky­oto Pro­to­col and earned early “cli­mate chan­cel­lor” plau­dits – have been un­der­mined by ris­ing green­house-gas emis­sions, on­go­ing lig­nite min­ing and a poi­sonous diesel legacy.

Through hard work and an ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pac­ity for pol­icy de­tail, Merkel has pur­sued a con­sen­sus style of state­craft that has looked ef­fort­less at a time when world pol­i­tics is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly edgy, self­ish and boor­ish.

In­deed, a huge part of her suc­cess has been her abil­ity to deal with creepy men of vary­ing de­grees – from Ge­orge W Bush’s un­prompted shoul­der mas­sage in 2006 to Don­ald Trump’s bizarre Oval Of­fice snub last year, when he re­fused to shake her hand for the cam­eras.

She has done all this dur­ing three decades hid­ing in full pub­lic view, with al­most noth­ing known about the pri­vate woman.

And her con­sen­sus-driven prag­ma­tism has nor­malised Ger­many’s role in Europe to such an ex­tent that, in 2011, a Pol­ish for­eign min­is­ter re­marked that he “feared Ger­man power less than I am be­gin­ning to fear Ger­man in­ac­tiv­ity”.

Many of Merkel’s great po­lit­i­cal achieve­ments were about avert­ing dis­as­ter. In Fe­bru­ary 2015 it was the chan­cel­lor who most likely avoided a full-scale war be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine with marathon all- night cease­fire talks in Minsk, then flew straight to an­other cri­sis sum­mit in Brus­sels and a stand- off with Greece over its bailout terms.

The jury is still out on her role in the euro cri­sis. Many around Europe are cer­tain Merkel’s lack of flex­i­bil­ity com­pounded the mis­ery in Greece. But few of these crit­ics re­mem­ber her do­mes­tic con­straints, po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial, as Europe’s largest bailout con­trib­u­tor.

Us­ing her trade­mark “small steps” style – far too slow for many in the fast-mov­ing cri­sis – she nudged Ger­many away from its rules- based dog­ma­tism to­wards a more prag­matic role bankrolling bailouts and sav­ing the cur­rency, an ap­proach that was a long way from how the euro was sold to Ger­mans in the 1990s.

While the chan­cel­lor used the cri­sis to cop­per- fas­ten the un­fin­ished sin­gle cur­rency, push­ing back­stops and greater bank­ing over­sight, oth­ers found in the Ger- man leader the per­fect cri­sis baddy.

At home, mean­while, Merkel did lit­tle to op­pose a coun­ternar­ra­tive of Ger­many as vic­tim of oth­ers’ profli­gacy. Nor did she si­lence do­mes­tic crit­ics by point­ing out how Ger­many, as a safe haven for in­vestors, ben­e­fited from rock-bot­tom bor­row­ing costs and cri­sis-loan in­ter­est rates.

A decade on from that cri­sis a poi­sonous pros­per­ity chau­vin­ism, which re­gards the Euro­pean Union as a cost rather than a ben­e­fit, lingers in Ger­many’s Euro­pean de­bate and has catal­ysed the rise of a new class of con­trar­ian Wut­bürger, or an­gry cit­i­zens.

What be­gan as protest against ex­pen­sive in­fra­struc­ture projects gath­ered mo­men­tum op­pos­ing the “al­ter­na­tiv­los” – or with­out al­ter­na­tive – euro-cri­sis logic Merkel de­ployed to rush emer­gency bailout leg­is­la­tion through the Bun­destag. “If the euro fails,” her mantra went, “then Europe fails.”

Ber­lin MPs fol­lowed her loy­ally, but many credit- and risk-averse Ger­mans re­belled and aban­doned her in­creas­ingly cen­trist CDU in favour of the Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land. Its rise and rise – first on an anti- bailout agenda and then on an anti-im­mi­gra­tion ticket – can­not be over­looked, with the mood be­fore and af­ter the AfD ob­vi­ous even in Merkel’s own po­lit­i­cal home state.

In Septem­ber 2013 I shad­owed the chan­cel­lor for her fi­nal rally in the pretty Baltic coastal town of Rib­nitz-Dam­garten, look­ing over her shoul­der as she au­to­graphed post­cards for ador­ing sup­port­ers. “She takes care of things and she’s calm in her­self, that’s why we like her,” said one lo­cal woman, Maria Wil­len­dorf, un­con­sciously ex­plain­ing Merkel’s win­ning for­mula. The wily CDU leader re­verse-en­gi­neered what Ger­mans wanted – po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus through so­porific rhetoric promis­ing to solve prob­lems with­out both­er­ing vot­ers – and sold it back to them.

Three days af­ter she signed those au­to­graphs, on fed­eral elec­tion night, her party fell just short of an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity.

Three years – and one migration cri­sis – later I fol­lowed Merkel back to Meck­len­burg. This time, at a rally held in­doors to avoid heck­lers, she had a haunted, ex­hausted air.

It was Au­gust 2016, al­most a year since she had left Ger­man bor­ders open to a huge flow of asy­lum seek­ers pass­ing up through the Balkans and Hun­gary. Fear­ing a hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter, and with no time to weigh up the con­se­quences, she tried to sell her far-reach­ing de­ci­sion with the so­bre slo­gan “Wir schaf­fen das”, or “We can man­age this.” And, by and large, Ger­many did man­age it, at least ini­tially. Al­though re­sources were stretched to their lim­its, so­cial or­der did not break down, and no one went hun­gry.

A year on from the peak of that cri­sis, at­ti­tudes had cooled to­wards the new ar­rivals, and the Ger­man leader, in her po­lit­i­cal home­land. Elke Krass, a lo­cal woman told me in the eastern town of Neustre­litz: “I don’t re­mem­ber any dis­cus­sion about whether we wanted a new wave of mass im­mi­gra­tion. Peo­ple want to know where things are go­ing. If Merkel knows, she’s not telling us.”

Again a voter had touched on the source of dis­con­tent: a huge act of so­cial en­gi­neer­ing and poor po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. That dis­con­tent had erupted eight months later when scores of women, in Cologne to ring in the new year, were groped and even raped by north­ern African men, many asy­lum seek­ers.

The sub­se­quent months, and a steady stream of vi­o­lent as­saults in­volv­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks, over­shad­owed the mil­lions of re­cent ar­rivals nei­ther as­sault­ing nor rap­ing any­one.

Ger­many’s “refugees wel­come” re­frain was soon drowned out by the anti-im­mi­gra­tion Pegida move­ment on its Mon­day Dres­den marches, on which its mem­bers chanted: “Rapefugees not wel­come” and “Merkel must go”.

Ger­many’s ren­dezvous with re­al­ity – and glob­al­i­sa­tion – had cracked Merkel’s prom­ise to her fel­low cit­i­zens: give me your vote and I prom­ise you com­pre­hen­sive care­free po­lit­i­cal cover. The chan­cel­lor’s pact with her vot­ers fi­nally shat­tered on De­cem­ber 19th, 2016, when a failed Tu­nisian asy­lum seeker drove a truck into a Ber­lin Christ­mas mar­ket, an at­tack that left 12 dead and 56 in­jured. The at­tack was a huge blow to Ger­man con­fi­dence – shot through with well- in­ten­tioned naivety – about the risks of let­ting in more than a mil­lion peo­ple, good and bad.

Pre­oc­cu­pied by her 2015 de­ci­sion, Merkel be­came in­creas­ingly with­drawn, and Der Spiegel mag­a­zine dubbed her “the woman in am­ber”.

Aides say she ran for a fourth term in 2017 only out of a sense of obli­ga­tion to de­fend the post­war mul­ti­lat­eral or­der in an off-kil­ter world of Brexit and Trump, pop­ulism and na­tion­al­ism. But her cam­paign was a dis­as­ter, with fu­ri­ous anti- Merkel protest drown­ing her out at pub­lic ral­lies, and ended with the worst CDU re­sult since 1949.

A strug­gling gov­ern­ment in Ber­lin and fur­ther state-elec­tion dis­as­ters prompted Merkel, in Ham­burg ear­lier this month, to swerve off Ger­many’s po­lit­i­cal Au­to­bahn via the last exit guar­an­tee­ing a dig­ni­fied de­par­ture.

Now it falls to her suc­ces­sor as CDU leader, An­negret Kramp- Kar­ren­bauer, to move beyond what she calls the “leaden” con­sen­sus of the Merkel years. The new Ger­man leader wants real po­lit­i­cal de­bate – with ro­bust po­lit­i­cal rhetoric – about what Ger­many should want for it­self and why, at home and abroad. The rest of the world is watch­ing.

The jury is still out on her role in the euro cri­sis. Many around Europe are cer­tain Merkel’s lack of flex­i­bil­ity com­pounded the mis­ery in Greece

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: VIR­GINIA MAYO/AFP/GETTY, SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY

Fi­nal farewell: An­gela Merkel is pre­par­ing to leave the po­lit­i­cal stage. Be­low: Bizarre snub: An­gela Merkel with Don­ald Trump in the Oval Of­fice in March 2017, when he re­fused to shake her hand.

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