Angela Merkel really was from Venus

Angela Merkel updates

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Every now and then writers allow the pleasing sound of a phrase to supplant a more prosaic description of reality. Here is one example from me: “The leader of the free world will on Thursday host Donald Trump,” I wrote in July 2017. “It will be the third time Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has met America’s president.” Alas, I fear I was being a little too generous to Merkel. To be the leader of the free world requires more than just responsible governance. You have to take risks and make sacrifices.

I count myself among the many semi-admirers of Germany’s outgoing — and first female — chancellor, and its second-longest serving one since Otto Von Bismarck (Helmut Kohl was in office for just three months longer than Merkel). Which other democratic leader has won four consecutive elections — and probably a fifth if she were running in this Sunday’s election? When Merkel first came to power, Tony Blair was still the UK’s prime minister, George W Bush was starting his second term, Jacques Chirac had another two years to go as president of France and Twitter hadn’t yet been invented. 

Merkel’s stolid durability in itself is a remarkable feat. So too was Merkel’s calm predictability — with the exception of her rash decision to admit 1m Syrian refugees in 2015 and to cancel Germany’s nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster. That quality stood out with particular resonance during the four-year Twitterstorm known as the Trump administration.

Germany’s relative success in holding far right populism at bay owes a great deal to the seriousness — even boringness — of its political culture. In which other country does the leading party go to the polls on the slogan “No experiments!” as Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union once did? In contrast to the English-speaking democracies and, of course, Italy, politics in Germany is not a branch of the entertainment industrial complex. Merkel is the personification of that.

Yet, in her waning days, Merkel has been subjected to some well-earned revisionism from critics who do not see her as the towering figure some have made her out to be. Of these, the best is by Matthias Matthijs and R Daniel Kelemen in Foreign Policy — “The other side of Angela Merkel”. It is also well worth reading the always acute Jeremy Cliffe in the New Statesman. My colleague Alan Beattie has already credited Matthijs and Kelemen with coining the perfect phrase — “Merkantilism” to describe her “systematic prioritising of German commercial and geoeconomic interests over democratic and human rights values or intra-EU solidarity”. They continue: “From her coddling of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban as he built the EU’s first autocracy to her active courting of Europe’s geostrategic rivals in Russia and China, Merkel has tended to place German profit and expediency above European principles and values.” 

Two things stand out to me as particularly egregious. The first is Merkel’s protection of Hungary’s Orban, a neofascist who has made a mockery of European values. Her motives were commercial — Hungary is both a production site and market for Germany’s big manufacturers. Second is her decision to press on with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipline, which makes Ukraine far more vulnerable to Russian encroachments. That was short-sighted and is likely to boomerang on Germany and Europe in the coming years.

The lesser charge sheet is Merkel’s age-old political device of kicking the can down the road. In Germany, there is even a word, merkeln, which means chronic indecisiveness. Whoever succeeds Merkel after Sunday’s election will inherit a patchwork of band aids, workarounds and a Nelsonian blind eye that will be hard to ignore. Chief among these is Germany’s unwillingness to be a serious foreign policy actor. Europe’s fiscal evolution is another. Far from being Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment”, Merkel’s agreement last year to the creation of jointly liable coronabonds looks more like a one-off than a permanent shift in the EU’s budgetary arrangements. 

Yet I will still give Merkel two cheers on her departure. She has her faults. But the right question in politics is always to ask “compared to what?” Germany’s current crop of leaders, including Armin Laschet, the CDU leader, lack Merkel’s political skills. So too do most of her international counterparts. And Merkel’s most rash decision — to allow a flood of Syrian refugees into Germany without consulting her European partners, let alone reforming its asylum system — came from good motives.

To paraphrase Robert Kagan’s 2002 essay, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus”, Merkel may have lacked that Martian edge but not nearly as much as the Martians in the US, Britain and elsewhere have been missing that Venus touch.

Rana, am I being too kind or critical of Merkel? Will you also miss her?

Recommended reading

  • In that vein, my column this week raises concerns about the accelerating Indo-Pacific arms race between China and the US and its allies. “On China, Washington is largely of one mind. Biden will win no brownie points by getting to the left of it.”

  • My colleague Martin Wolf had a well-timed and sharp column calling on the US Fed to end quantitative easing. A day later Jay Powell, the Fed chair, gave his strongest signal yet that he will begin to taper the $120bn monthly purchases in the near future. Few things have done as much to fuel US — and global — inequality as the unprecedented central bank support for financial asset prices.

  • I would also urge Swampians to read my colleague Philip Stephens final column for the Financial Times — after 35 years as one of the paper’s leading voices. It is on why the French are right about Americans — they are indeed heedless unilateralists but they are the best we’ve got, he argues. We will doubtless see plenty of books by Philip in the coming years. 

Catch up on previous Swamp Notes on

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, I will definitely miss Angela. As a frugal Midwesterner, I have a bit of a crush on her Swabian housewife vibe (at both the macro and the micro level; so many exports, so little debt, such plain suits!) even as I realise that German austerity and prosperity is made possible by southern European profligacy.

Like most Germans, Merkel was never really willing to admit that her country is the biggest beneficiary of the euro, and that Germany very often acts like the China of Europe (kudos to Matthijs and Kelemen for their word invention). Also, she hasn’t been willing to make some of the really tough choices between trade and liberal democratic values, as you point out.

Still, I have long admired the way she communicates as a leader. There’s no Macronian drama, and you get the sense that she actually has a personal life. Far from seeing it as a snub, I admired her decision to forgo being the very first Biden administration foreign leader call, as she was tied up in he garden. Well done. I hope she gets more time to do it now, and I can’t wait to read her memoirs.

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to ‘US vs China — part two’:
“My grandfather used to say that when people speak one should believe them. The Chinese ratified they are a Communist state in their 2017 constitutional reform. We should believe them. The implications are so massive that we prefer to think they are only paying lip service to that statement. We should not characterise China as state capitalism. For starters there is no private property, nor is there an independent judiciary, two bedrocks of capitalism. China is engaged in a much more complex experiment, difficult to define. Politically controlled limited economic liberty comes to mind, but the contradiction in terms is mind boggling. Time will tell how this experiment plays out.” — Alfredo Rodriguez, Washington, DC

In response to ‘The Democratic party’s double standards on wealth inequality’:
“The ‘carried interest’ loophole is the canary in the coal mine for me. Until it is eliminated I will continue to think of the government tax system as being completely corrupt. Of course the easy way is to equalise capital gains rates and ordinary income rates but direct elimination would be acceptable as well. Doing neither is extremely disappointing. The problem is that most readers outside the investment world have no idea what ‘carried interest’ means but they would get much more exercised if they knew it meant that investment managers pay capital gains rates on what would otherwise be ordinary income bonus payments. Perhaps a column detailing and highlighting how this works and even suggesting another name for it beside ‘carried interest’ would move public opinion. — Ira Wagner, Bethesda, Maryland

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on [email protected], contact Ed on [email protected] and Rana on [email protected], and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter

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