SHE’S THE MOST POPULAR GERMAN LEADER SINCE, WELL...
East meets West in Chancellor Angela Merkel, flying high with 80 per cent approval ratings
Earlier this spring, Britain's bestselling daily newspaper, the Sun, introduced its readers to Germany's new Chancellor Angela Merkel with a large photograph of her naked rear end, taken by paparazzi when Merkel was vacationing in Italy. "I'm big in the Bumdestag," the caption read, a pun on the name for the German house of parliament.
The Germans are used to taking abuse from the British tabloid press, whose schoolboyish journalists seem to be locked in a 1940 time warp. Germans are routinely described as “Krauts” and “Fritz,” and one newspaper’s photo spread of supposedly the ugliest girls in Germany featured women
with black Hitler moustaches airbrushed on their faces. But in making fun of Merkel, appears that the Sun finally crossed a line and roused the Germans to righteous anger. “Brits lampoon our chancellor,” the Bild newspaper fumed in a headline, and asked, “Where does this hatred come from?”
A better question to ask would be, where did this overwhelming support among Germans for Angela Merkel come from?
Merkel, chairwoman of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, became chancellor last November amid mass ambivalence and low expectations. She almost lost the election against incumbent Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democratic Party,
and she leads Germany today at the head of an unwieldy coalition with her party’s archrivals, the SPD. But six months after the election, Merkel, 51, who was raised in East Germany, has seen her approval ratings temporarily top 80 per cent. It is a stunning turnaround, and with western Europe’s other traditional powerhouses, France, Italy and Britain, either incapacitated or—in the case of Britain—led by a prime minister riding out his final days in office, Merkel stands as arguably the most powerful leader in Europe.
Much of her popularity can be explained by the simple fact that she is not Schröder. Chancellor from 1998 to 2005, he is a vain and blustering man who enjoyed anti-American grandstanding, and he is a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As chancellor, he signed a multi-billion-dollar gas pipeline deal with Russia, and within weeks of leaving office accepted the job of chair-
man of the pipeline company itself. Germans smell a rat. “I can’t think of anyone who’s fallen from favour so quickly upon leaving office,” says William Paterson, a professor at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for German Studies. “He’s fallen off a cliff.” Merkel has a different style. She was initially seen as dowdy and boring, but Germans now prefer to describe her as measured and pragmatic. “We needed a rest in politics,” says Clemens Wergin, editorial writer at Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily. “Most Germans had the feeling that they needed someone with a more hands-down approach, with more calm and less egomaniacal media politics.” The chancellor’s style has so far distracted citizens from the fact that, domestically, she really hasn’t done much. Merkel had campaigned on a platform of free market reforms designed to liberalize Germany’s heavily regulated society. But now that she heads a coalition of left and right, most of these have been shelved or watered down.
Ironically, this has allowed Merkel to broaden her support to include many on the left who once would have recoiled at backing a conservative. Take the case of Jutta Tutzauer, a woman with slightly Bohemian clothes, long blond hair and deeply tanned skin. Tutzauer, 6l, is a self-described “1968er”: one of the young people who spent the ■■ late 1960s protesting against the establishment, and who have had immense Hi control over German media and politics ever since. Tutzauer voted for Schroder’s SPD, and says she has always been against Merkel. “But I must admit that I’m surprised in a positive way. I must admit it if someone is doing a good job.” Tutzauer says she might even support Merkel’s originally planned economic reforms. “I’m a socialist,” she says. “But we have such a social safety net for people. It’s almost too much. People always find tricks to get more money from the state.” Germans crave harmony and compromise, says Josef Joffe, publisher and editor at Die Zeit, an influential German weekly. Merkel’s embodiment of this has given her substantial clout. The nature of the coalition she leads has so far restricted her ability to deliver serious reforms at home, but already Merkel has made it clear she intends to transform Germany’s position in the world and shake up alliances that have governed European affairs since Sept. 11. Primary among these is Germany’s ties to the United States.
During the 2002 election campaign, Schröder declared that he would not “click my heels” and follow U.S. President George W. Bush’s lead on Iraq. Schröder became French President Jacques Chirac’s new best friend,
and relations between the United States and Germany entered an ice age. Most Germans despise the U.S. President. But while antiAmericanism is widespread, it is not as prevalent as it is in France. “We should never forget what the U.S. did for Germany after the Second World War,” says Michael Huch, a consultant on matters of government. Many Germans, in fact, worried about seeing their country isolated from its traditional ally.
Merkel moved immediately to repair this damage. She has visited Washington twice, and has an excellent rapport with Bush. “Angela Merkel is somebody who is a joy to deal with,” Bush said in an interview with ARD, a German television network.
He also told reporters: “She’s got a kind of spirit to her that is appealing. She loves freedom.”
Much more important than establishing a personal friendship, Merkel is aligning German foreign policy closer to that of the U.S. and Britain. She has criticized Putin regarding the state of democracy in Russia; she has harsh words for Iran; and she is more critical of the Pales-
tinians than Schröder. “She is truly anchored in the West, which Schröder was not,” Joffe says. “She has ‘re-centred’ German foreign policy by patching up with Bush, increasing the distance to Putin, and moving a bit closer to Blair. By returning to Germany’s traditional position in the middle, she has enormously increased German leverage and reputation.” And Merkel’s pro-U.S. stance comes at a welcome time for Bush. The Blair era is coming to an end; when he leaves, Bush will lose his most stalwart ally in western Europe. The strong friendship between Britain and the U.S. will continue, but for now the British
PM is something of a lame duck. Bush desperately needs a new ally.
According to Wergin, Merkel’s foreign policy is motivated by her own ideals as much as by recognizing an opportunity for Germany. “Her thinking is centred on a term like ‘freedom,’ which wasn’t the case with Schröder,” he says. “In foreign policy, freedom never played a role. It was always stability, stability, stability—freedom and democracy ranged somewhere in the back seat. With Merkel, freedom is the cornerstone of her thinking.” Freedom is also a central message for Bush. “So they understand each other,” says Eberhard Sandschneider,
research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Officials in the Bush administration are predictably thrilled. Wergin says that a senior U.S. diplomat told him, “Merkel has the biggest balls in Europe.” Wergin agrees—he says Merkel is the bravest and most powerful leader on the continent. But it is still not clear if she is willing to assume a leadership role in Europe, where there is a marked That’s an old tradition of German foreign policy after the Second World War—that we don’t think of ourselves as taking the lead,” Wergin says.
Merkel’s psyche, however, may be shaped more by the experience of growing up in Communist East Germany than it is by the collective sense of guilt and passivity many Germans carry because of their country’s Nazi past. Bush said that he and Merkel spent a lot of time at the White House discussing her childhood. “There’s something really refreshing to work with someone who understands first-hand what it means to be free,”
'MERKEL HAS THE BIGGEST BALLS IN EUROPE'
he told ARD. “Certainly Angela Merkel has gone from a society which was repressive, to a society which is open and free.”
If the key to understanding Merkel’s foreign policy ambitions lie in her childhood past, some answers might be found in Templin, a small town surrounded by forests and lakes, 70 km north of Berlin. Angela Merkel’s family moved here from Hamburg, West Germany, when she was a toddler. Her father was a Lutheran pastor, and the family suffered some discrimination for their faith. Merkel did join the Communist Young Pioneers, as did most East German youth. Also like hundreds of thousands of other East Germans, she was approached by the Stasi secret police and asked to spy on her peers. Merkel refused. According to Stasi records, she claimed she was an “uncontrollable chatterbox” who couldn’t keep secrets. But rejecting the Stasi demanded courage, regardless of the excuses. She in turn was seen as suspect and was spied on by her supposed friends.
It turns out the Stasi were correct to question Merkel’s commitment to Communism. Although she initially shunned politics, Merkel joined the Democratic Awakening movement when the Communist regime was on the verge of collapse. She later joined the CDU and became a protege of chancellor Helmut Kohl, who brought her into his cabinet and thus helped launch her political career.
Today, Templin is a popular destination for wealthy Berliners looking to enjoy hunting and other outdoor activities. But the economy is depressed, and locals suffer high levels of unemployment. When Maclean’s visited, the town was adorned with posters advertising an upcoming concert by Boney M, “featuring the original lead singer.” Other posters promoted an Ossiparty, or “East party,” a nostalgic celebration of Com-
munist East Germany.
“I went to school with her,” says Gisela Kessler. “She was a nice little girl, as nice as the rest of us. We played and studied together.” Another classmate, who asked not to be named, says that Merkel was shy socially but wouldn’t hesitate to answer questions in the classroom. “We had a lot of problems with her in class. She always knew better than the rest of us,” he says.
Renate Wermter’s childhood in Templin was similar in some ways to Angela Merkel’s. Like Merkel, Wermter’s family was religious. Both girls were confirmed in their church,
instead of taking part in Jugendweihe, a secular coming-of-age ceremony common in East Germany. “Whenever you were against the government, chances are you were Christian, because you needed something else to believe in,” she says.
But the oppression Wermter’s family suffered at the hands of Communist authorities in East Germany was much more acute. Her parents were jailed and their property seized. They escaped to the West in 1967. Wermter now lives in Berlin, but she comes back frequently. In fact, on this day she is taking legal possession of her family’s property that was appropriated by the Communist state decades ago. (An 86-year-old man who once had close party ties still has a house on the property, which he will be allowed to keep.) Wermter believes that growing up in Templin shaped Merkel’s politics. “She had to live with repression. I think that had a lot to do with it, her upbringing here. She moved between two worlds. This gave her the ability to move between East and West.”
Wermter says she is now very proud of Merkel—because she is a woman, and because she comes from the former East Germany. Significantly, however, Wermter left East Germany, and found success in the West as a nurse. Those who remained in Templin don’t feel nearly as much affection for their chancellor. “We don’t think she’s one of us,” says Hans-Ulrich Freyn, who runs a diner. “You can tell by the outcome of the election here. The CDU didn’t do well.”
Kessler says she supported Merkel in the last election because she thought Merkel understood what living in the East was like. “But since she has become chancellor, she doesn’t stand up for us.” Now Kessler fears the economic reforms that Merkel might bring in. “I earn 350 euros a month. My husband is on a pension. He gets 600 euros
a month. How can we survive?” Kessler says she will never vote for Merkel again. She says she was happier living in Communist East Germany. “There was more help from the state.”
For all of Angela Merkel’s grand ideas about foreign policy and global freedom, it is the German economy and domestic reforms that most affect people like Kessler, and it is on these issues that her chancellorship will stand or fall. The economy has enjoyed a modest recovery of late, although it is debatable how much the weak reforms that Merkel has invoked are responsible. Consumer confidence has improved, and the unemployment rate has dropped, but it still stands at 11 per cent—
even higher than in France.
“A slight economic recovery is of course welcome,” Wergin says. “But it is not what we need to make politics move. It actually comes at the totally wrong moment, because it gives us the feeling that maybe things will turn out well without us moving too much.” Wergin thinks that radical free market reforms are necessary, but too few Germans are willing to go through with them. “You don’t have free market convictions playing an important role in our public discourse or politics,” he says. “There is a strange mood that more should be done to solve our problems, but if you come down to it, people don’t want this problem-solving to hurt them. They want to have their cake and eat it. And this is not
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page possible. You cannot have reforms that are effective and non-hurting. It will hurt.” Wergin’s views are reflected on the streets of Berlin. There are those who think radical changes are necessary to deal with Germany’s economic problems. Hakan Eser, who owns and runs a Turkish restaurant in the immigrant and working class neighbourhood of Kreuzberg 36, says that five years ago he employed seven people. Now there are three; it is too expensive for him to hire more staff, and few want to work anyway because they receive so much money in social assistance. “I would like to be asleep at home, too,” he says. “In the last 20 years, people have been petted. The state gives money, money, money and doesn’t expect anything in return.” Down the road at the smoky Kegler-Eck bar, Peer Backoff and Lutz Wieland are having a few beers and watching a soccer game on television. Both work for a security company, where they earn about eight euros an hour. Backoff says Merkel’s priorities are “far away from the people.” Both reject any talk of free market reforms and think Germany has already changed far too much. “These days, we live in a country that is orientated to an Anglo-Saxon culture that doesn’t have roots here,” Wieland says. “Shareholder values? People don’t understand how a company manager can wipe out 30,000 jobs. In America or Canada, people would say what is the big deal? But that’s not the way here.” There are divisions like those between Eser and Backoff and Wieland across Germany. Some think the country’s economy needs a radical overhaul. But they are not in the majority, and even those who favour reforms usually want to see them enacted slowly. “You can always argue that politicians are not doing enough,” Clemens Wergin says. “But politicians do what the voters let them do, and the election results didn’t give Merkel a mandate for bruising social reforms.”
To be fair, despite double-digit unemployment, Germany is not facing a palpable crisis. Merkel is often compared to Margaret Thatcher, but Germany is not like Britain was in the 1970s and 1980s, notes professor Paterson. “It was quite clear that the previous way of doing things wasn’t working. Germany isn’t like that.” George W. Bush, Tony Blair—and Stephen Harper, for that matter—should therefore welcome Germany’s chancellor as a new ally committed to a revived Euro-Atlantic partnership. She will likely stand with the West in forthcoming international crises and may push others in Europe to do the same. But domestically, the Germans themselves will experience only gradual changes. Germany may need more radical reforms, but Angela Merkel isn’t delivering them anytime soon. M
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