For Merkel, one step at a time

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the annual meeting of the Association of German Industry in Berlin on Tuesday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the annual meeting of the Association of German Industry in Berlin on Tuesday. (MICHAEL SOHN / Associated Press)
Posted: September 27, 2012

By Tobias Peter

A year ago now on TV, Angela Merkel tried to explain how she is handling the euro crisis:

"What we have to do is to take only steps we can control," the German chancellor told her audience. "I can only take one step at a time."

The 58-year-old Merkel has never been too specific about how she plans to tackle the huge problems.

The euro crisis is a debt crisis. When Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and others were no longer able to service their debts without assistance, the rest of the euro zone jumped in - in order to prevent the turbulence that would result if financial markets lost trust in their common currency.

From the beginning, Germany, the largest and strongest member of the European Union, has been hesitant about the amount of money it should give. And the chancellor has never shown the leadership that many on the continent and around the world had hoped for.

Critics complain that Merkel is slow on decision-making, is afraid of telling voters the truth, and spends a lot of time on tactical maneuvering. She is not a leader, but a procrastinator and calculator.

Joschka Fischer, the former German minister of foreign affairs, said, "The German government only runs after what's happening, driven by the crisis rather than developing a strategic concept how to control it."

Even a fellow party member, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was in office when the Berlin Wall fell, said in an interview last year: "Since several years Germany has not been a reliable power anymore."

Merkel's style of government is deeply rooted in her life and character.

The chancellor was born in 1954 in Hamburg, a harbor city in the western, free part of Germany. Yet her father, a Lutheran minister, decided to relocate the family to East Germany, which was under Soviet control from the end of World War II until 1989. The pastor wanted to ensure that Germans ruled by communists had churches and religion.

Though the Merkels had a comfortable life in a parsonage, they were carefully watched by the regime. Young Angela Merkel learned to be attentive about how she presented herself. Don't be conspicuous, always know what you are saying, and never forget how useful it might be to just keep your mouth shut - these are the lessons that Merkel was taught as a minister's child in the Soviet zone.

Thus Merkel has learned to hide her inner life. "Is there a true Merkel behind the façade?" asks Dirk Kurbjuweit, a German political reporter who has traveled for years with the chancellor, in his book Angela Merkel: A Chancellor for Everybody? "I have to admit I don't know that." According to him, the chancellor controls herself perfectly. He describes her as "smooth, sanded, and varnished with matte paint."

Kurbjuweit worries that Merkel's reserve and silence causes "a hypoglycemia of democracy," as she is not explaining to the Germans what exactly she is planning to do - and why. However, Ulrich Sollmann, a communication expert who coaches politicians and businessmen in Germany, told me that Merkel's silence might be key to her favorable poll numbers.

"Imagine you are on a possibly sinking ship," says Sollmann. "Everybody is jumping in panic into the rescue - and then there already is that one person who is sitting there calmly, signaling: 'Don't be afraid, we are going to be OK somehow.' This is just how Merkel calms voters and provides them with a good feeling."

In addition, Merkel's silence grants her flexibility. She can watch what is happening and make up her mind without taking too many risks herself. That strategy has served her well on other occasions.

When the Berlin Wall fell, Merkel - then 35 years old - was sitting in the sauna, as she often did on Thursdays. She was a physicist who always tried to have a happy life in East Germany on her terms, but she was not an integral part of the peaceful revolution that finally caused the downfall of the communist regime.

"She wasn't among the first 500 people, not among the first 5,000, not among the first 50,000, and not even among the first two million people who have been protesting on the streets," says Rainer Eppelmann, one of the leaders of the East German opposition movement. While others fought the illegitimate government, it wasn't until after the regime was gone that Merkel began to take care of her own political career.

Not only has Merkel become a more successful politician in the reunited Germany than any of those in the former East German opposition, but also she has passed the West German politicians of her generation. A decisive component of her success here is - again - flexibility.

People who start on a political career early are often helped along the way by colleagues and supporters, but they can also be tied down by that same network. Any major change of position has to be explained - and can result in punishment. Merkel never had to carry a lot of ideological baggage.

She once wanted to minimize socialized medicine in Germany - but quickly dropped the idea once she realized that voters didn't approve. She wanted to strengthen nuclear energy in the country - and then had a complete turnaround, calling for phasing out nuclear power within 10 years. This came after German support for nuclear power fell after the accident in Fukushima, Japan. Merkel may be chairwoman of the conservative party, but she doesn't mind adopting liberal or even socialist politics if it helps her political career.

According to the Greek philosopher Plato, politicians are either confectioners or doctors. While confectioners try to get the people's approval by all sweetness available, doctors might prescribe medicines the people don't like. Merkel is a confectioner, concentrating on finding out which range of products people like best.

What does that mean for the way the chancellor is handling the euro crisis? In the long run, it would be better for the world economy if Merkel told the German people soon that this crisis is going to cost them an incredible amount of money, more than they ever thought.

In response to the crisis, economist and columnist Paul Krugman, billionaire financier George Soros, and others are all are saying: Better to spend more money now, than even more later. Doing that would even be cheaper, as many experts have stressed, because a quick cure is better than a lingering illness.

In the short run, however, Merkel is afraid that telling the German people this will hurt her chances for reelection next year. So, for now, she is keeping the steps as small as possible.

Germany needs the euro. If the continent switched back to national currencies, the Germans would have difficulty exporting their products because of the high rates of exchange for the deutsche mark. The chancellor knows that, but is still doesn't make enough of an effort to explain reality to the German people.

Joschka Fischer has candidly and tartly warned Merkel that Germany cannot act like a big Switzerland, a tiny neighbor country that holds a lot of pride in being neutral and independently caring for itself. Fischer expresses the fear that such an attitude could isolate Germany in the European Union.

Is that what Merkel wants? Of course not. But right now, strengthening European integration and resolving the euro crisis don't seem to be the chancellor's first priorities. Instead, the focus seems to be on reelection. That would be a big step for her. However, if she doesn't change her way of doing business, that step could be a harmful one for Germany, Europe, and the rest of the world.

Tobias Peter is a political reporter and news editor at the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger in Cologne, Germany. He is visiting The Inquirer as part of the International Center for Journalists' Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He can be reached at