The genius of Merkel

Prospect Magazine

The genius of Merkel


Germans love her, Europe loathes her. Why?

Angela Merkel signs autographs at the Bayreuth Festival in 2012 (photo: Marc Müller/DPA/Corbis)

Greek newspapers like to portray German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform. The Italian daily Libero has greeted her with a rude Vaffanmerkel! on its cover. The New Statesman has declared her “Europe’s most dangerous leader.” Many here in Britain think that Merkel’s austerity drive is destroying the euro. In my home country Germany, meanwhile, Merkel is the most popular politician bar none.  She is almost guaranteed to be re-elected for a third term in 2013. Why do the Germans cheer their leader while the rest of Europe seems to loathe her?

One fundamental reason for Merkel’s persistent popularity is the German economy. It’s hard to imagine if you sit in Greece, Spain or even depressed Britain. But German output has risen by around 8 per cent since the start of the euro crisis, according to the German economics ministry. The German export juggernaut is purring along nicely. Unemployment is at a record low and wages are finally rising. What’s not to like?

The Germans give Merkel a lot of credit for having protected them against the crisis. That credit is not fully earned—the labour market reforms pushed through by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder have a lot to do with Germany’s current success; as does strong Asian demand for German cars and machine tools and a modestly priced euro. But Merkel appears careful not to squander taxpayers’ money on euro bailouts and she is tough on southern European countries that are slow to reform. Most Germans wholeheartedly approve of Merkel’s handling of the euro crisis.

Another reason why the Germans love their chancellor is that she avoids scandal and bling. She still resides in her modest Berlin flat rather than the airy apartments of the chancellery. She is often seen in her local supermarket. In July she wore the same dress to the Bayreuth opera as she did in 2008. Most Germans are frugal. Merkel is too. Even her earthy laugh and her addiction to text messaging signal that she is just like you.

Merkel is also a very cautious politician who hates big statements. She is often underestimated. She tends to under-promise and over-deliver. She can be ruthless in getting rid of potential political challengers but she never says a bad word about her opponents. These traits have made her politically unassailable at home.

But perhaps most important, Merkel is the epitome of German politics. Germany’s post-war constitution (written with a little help from the Americans and British) created a political system that values caution and consensus and prevents rash decision-making. Merkel is exceptionally good at knocking heads together and getting people to agree on solutions. She has no ego. Nor is she weighed down by inflexible political principles (opposition parties rightly complain that Merkel keeps taking over their most popular ideas). The euro crisis has helped her to look even more presidential as she travels from summit to summit. She seems to float above the petty squabbles that dominate the German parliament.

Germans think the ability to create consensus is important for leadership. For Britons, accustomed to the adversarial politics of first-past-the-post voting and prime minister’s question time, this is almost impossible to understand. Merkel simply would not work in Westminster. The Germans, on the other hand, would probably find most British leaders loud-mouthed, impulsive and unnecessarily combative in style.

In any case, the differences between Germany and the rest of Europe are somewhat exaggerated. The media loves Merkel-bashing but Europeans seem to hold her in grudging respect. Earlier this year, the Pew Global Attitude Project found that in all large European countries people gave Merkel higher marks for handling the euro crisis than their own respective leaders. Two-thirds of Britons applauded Merkel, but only 51 per cent thought Cameron was doing well. Also, the British-German love-in at the last EU summit (where Merkel backed Cameron’s veto of a bigger EU budget) has revealed that Merkel and Cameron can make common cause.

Merkel is a euro pragmatist. She firmly believes in the economic and political benefits that European integration brings for Germany. But she is no bleary-eyed federalist. In that sense, she is closer to most British politicians than to former German leaders such as Helmut Kohl or Hans-Dietrich Genscher. But make no mistake: this also means that Merkel will stand up for German national interests whenever that is necessary. This new German assertiveness will keep Merkel’s approval ratings up at home but it will put her at odds with other Europeans.

  1. December 15, 2012


    Your commentator forgets that Mrs Merkel is running the most divisive European campaign
    for many a decade. Old hatreds have resurfaced and “the slightly undervalued
    Euro” is such a misrepresentation of the present economic policy! The US Treasury
    has just stopped short of calling Germany a currency manipulator,
    which is the weapon used today… May be other Europeans admire her
    capacity to be effective, but loath the prospect of a “New German Union with
    Europe in it”. The European social fabric is destroyed by Mrs Merkel’s
    policies and the damage will be long lasting. Austerity is destroying
    the weakest people within the poorest countries and is not benefiting
    the weakest people within Germany. It is developing a new form of
    German nationalism which feeds on inequality, misinformation and
    injustice. The German people will not love Mrs Merkel for this as they
    care deeply for social justice and are simply not told the full
    truth: namely that Germany is running an aggressive and predatory
    economic policy based on a longer term undervalued Euro. A policy
    that is returning them to the old position of the untrustworthy neighbour
    that one should always watch. I will be delighted if I am proven wrong,
    but sadly I fear I will not: Mrs Merkel will be remembered in the future
    as a politician who for short term expediency squandered the good
    name and faith that post WW2 German politicians strived hard to
    create. In short, as yet another blinkered conservative politician
    Who sacrificed long term European social cohesion and peace
    for a few pieces of silver. A shameful failure…

  2. January 3, 2013

    David Vincent

    what Kostas said.

  3. January 23, 2013

    Hermann Dyrsen

    I wouldn’t really say that Germans LOVED Merkel. Her party got 30% in the last elections, less than ever before. And there is growing frustration over her hesitating and indecisive political style, especially regarding domestic politics.

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Katinka Barysch

Katinka Barysch
Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform 

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