At the heart of Angela Merkel’s political style is her contempt for the very idea of style in politics. She practiced politics as a negation of style. Not for her the big vision or the soaring rhetoric. Everything from his discreet oratory, his cadences like a Wikipedia entry, to his decidedly unchanging uniform, spoke of the same hint of ornamentation. In an age when most politicians are resigned to sacrificing their privacy and submitting to the indignities of celebrity culture, she has done neither.
She approached the exercise of power in much the same way. What Beckett did to language – removing every frills, removing every ornament – she did to politics. When your dishwasher breaks down, she once said, you don’t want exhaustive theories about what went wrong; you want it fixed. And that’s how she saw her role. Voters wanted things to be fixed. His job was to fix them – one by one, step by step, year after year. Germany and Europe have changed under his watch – not by grand design but by the slow accumulation of these individual fixes. Some of his opinions have remained constant, to be sure, but the rigidity of his personal style has been misinterpreted as inflexibility of thought. At home and abroad, Merkel was adaptable, pragmatic, and capable of chameleon-type changes that set her adversaries off balance and helped ensure her remarkable longevity. It was politics as a problem-solving puzzle.
In almost every way, the Merkel method has worked. When she steps down next month, on her own terms, after 16 years in power, she will bequeath a country that lives well, where the unemployment rate is 6% and whose status as a political and economic power in Europe is largely undisputed. A whole generation of Germans have no memory of the years immediately preceding Merkel’s rise to power, when the country was portrayed as the aging “sick man of Europe” and averse to change.
The aftermath of Brexit
The European scene, where progress is made through consensus building and the signing of agreements, rewards leadership qualities like Merkel’s. While her French counterparts, accustomed to their domestic role as Republican monarch, declaimed their ambitions for EU reform and hoped everyone would follow, Merkel moved slowly, always leading from the center, rarely divulging her ideas until ‘she has to, and sometimes not even then. What came out was almost invariably closer to its own position.
In a succession of European crises that demanded a firm hand above all else, Merkel’s ability to hold things together made her not only effective but indispensable. Many have lamented his caution during the financial crisis, but there is a plausible counterfactual story of the past decade in which, under another German ruler, the euro collapsed. Arguably, Merkel could have done more to keep the UK in the European Union, but her handling of the consequences of the Brexit vote, which mainly consisted of refusing to get involved in the talks between Brussels and London, has helped the EU to emerge stronger from this divorce mess. His actions at the height of the wave of migrant arrivals in 2015-2016, when his pragmatism combined with his basic decency to memorable effect, provided moral leadership when needed.
Yet Merkelism had its limits. Reducing each problem to its building blocks and addressing each one sequentially may have satisfied the physicist Merkel, but that meant that on two of the biggest threats Europe faced – the climate emergency and the drift towards authoritarianism in Central Europe – Merkel the politician fell short. She understood the seriousness of both. As a scientist and former Minister of the Environment, she has mastered the climate dossier and taken steps to increase Germany’s share of renewable energies. But even she admits that she didn’t go far enough. As a liberal whose attachment to the rule of law was perhaps the most obvious ideological position she defended, she was fully aware of the dangerous democratic drift in Hungary and Poland. But his instinct was to keep demagogues like Viktor Orban inside the tent, believing that dialogue could act as a brake on their excesses. Too often this has been seen as tolerance. Admittedly, this seemed to have little effect.
Global warming and the threat to democracy in the EU are two crises that cannot be understood on a small canvas. They can only be tackled with the kind of bold and time-defining measures that Merkel has backed down from. With more ambition, it could have boosted Europe’s energy transition. Today, the continent is crying out for someone who can express the scale of these crises and galvanize people for the radical collective effort it will take to resolve them. It was never going to be Merkel. “The idea that a person can touch others so much with words that they change their mind is not an idea that I have never shared – but it is still a beautiful idea”, a- she said in 2016.
Here is the paradox. Europe will be diminished without Angela Merkel at the helm. And yet her departure may be necessary for her to adapt to a new era.