The Global Chancellor How Merkel Got Her Groove Back
When Chancellor Merkel announced her re-election bid last November, it seemed as though she didn't really want the job. Recently, however, she has rediscovered her drive -- and is convinced that her experience is vital in these uncertain times.
On this cheerful Tuesday morning, Angela Merkel is at peace with herself and her country. She is standing in a factory loft in central Berlin and listening to Rami Rihawi, a refugee from Syria, who, in his blue suit and only slightly accented German, looks as though he has just jumped out of a glossy brochure on successful integration.
After fleeing his homeland to Germany, Rihawi attended a school for computer experts, the site of Merkel's visit. He then received an internship at steel retailer Klöckner before being offered a fulltime job at the company. "We were extremely happy that Rami accepted our job offer," says Klöckner CEO Gisbert Rühl, who is standing proudly next to Rihawi.
The integration success story says he's learning new things every day, and not just how to lead a steel giant into the digital age. He has also acquired some amusing new words from his German colleagues. "This week, my favorite word is fuchsteufelswild," Rihawi says, a word which means "hopping mad." "Oh yes," says Merkel, before repeating the word slowly.
Rihawi doesn't let Merkel get away before he delivers an important message to the chancellor. "Yesterday, I spoke on the phone with my parents in Aleppo and I want to relate that they really value and respect you." Merkel's face is now beaming. She leans over and asks him to send her heartfelt greetings to his parents.
There are plenty in Germany who would say that the country's welcoming attitude toward its refugees has come to an end. But in this Berlin loft, Merkel's most vocal critics seem as though they are from another planet -- and that the famous selfies the chancellor took with newly arrived refugees in September 2015 have only positive connotations. "Who wants to be in the group photo?" Merkel calls out as she prepares to leave after her hour-long visit.
She is immediately surrounded by young migrants pulling their mobile phones out of their pockets. For a brief moment, Merkel looks uncomfortable. "Sit down, sit down," she urges them sternly, but nobody listens and more and more phones are held up. Merkel finally capitulates to the storm of excitement and patiently submits to the photo session.
What's the Plan?
Merkel has had a busy couple of weeks. Just hours after Rami Rihawi passed along the kind message from his parents in Aleppo, Merkel was sitting on stage with Ivanka Trump, whose father declared the chancellor's immigration policies to be "insane."
On Sunday, she traveled to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the king to discuss a peace plan for Yemen. Following the six-hour flight, she suddenly found herself enjoying a meal of stewed lamb in the Royal Palace in Jeddah, only to realize that the king was more interest in talking about German assault rifles than peace in Yemen.
Can anyone keep up? At the beginning of the year, after she announced her intention to run for re-election in September, it seemed as though the chancellor wanted nothing more than to be rescued from the burdens of office. Pundits wrote of her apparent exhaustion and it wasn't clear who was suffering more: the chancellor under the strains of her position or the populace under Merkel's interminable tenure.
Now, though, she is adhering to a schedule that seems designed to refute any possible doubts about her stamina. Jeddah, Abu Dhabi, Sochi: 11,300 kilometers (7,021 miles) in just three days. She is dashing through the world more frenetically than she has in a long time as she fights to hold on to her office. Yet even after two weeks spent accompanying her on her travels, it is impossible to escape the impression that, despite her frenetic activity, it still isn't clear what she plans to do if voters grant her an additional four years in the Chancellery.
On Sunday morning, she climbs into the airplane for Jeddah at shortly after 6 a.m. There is some grumbling among her staff: Why, for God's sake, does the trip have to start on a Sunday, and at such an ungodly hour? But Merkel is unrelenting and her advisers stumble sleepily into their business-class seats -- and even the otherwise so notoriously glowing cheeks of her spokesman Steffen Seibert seem a bit pale at this early hour.
Merkel's greatest strength is her command of detail and ability to explain complicated policy in a few trenchant sentences. She knows that Iran supports the Houthi insurgency in Yemen and that the country's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, likewise backs the rebels. The situation might ease if he were to leave the country, but he also fears he might get assassinated if he attempts to flee into exile. It is an incredibly complicated situation, but that is exactly what Merkel finds appealing.
Distance from the Bellyachers
When she talks about global affairs, Christoph Heusgen, her foreign policy advisor, usually isn't far away. He has been at her side since Merkel became chancellor in 2005 and, in the time since, has developed the astounding ability to sleep while standing.
When Merkel speaks, his eyes sometimes slowly close, but he nevertheless seems to be paying close attention. When the chancellor omits a detail, he startles awake and seamlessly holds a brief lecture on Egyptian-Saudi relations.
Like every chancellor late in their terms, Merkel enjoys traveling. And like her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, she values the distance to all the headaches and bellyachers that make life difficult back home.
After a long day last Wednesday, for example, she has to make an appearance at a reception for security policy experts from her party's parliamentary caucus. The gathering is held on the third floor of the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building, and includes many of those who were withering in their critique of Merkel during the refugee crisis.
Merkel reels off her comments in the bored tone of a notary public fulfilling his legal obligation to read out a contract right down to the last comma. Once she has finished, she disappears behind a black divider that separates her from the rest of the group. Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, sidles closer -- a man with small, round glasses through which he looks at the world with deep mistrust.
Merkel looks around, trying to plan her escape. Two young women are standing at the black divider who badly want to take a picture with the chancellor. Suddenly, Merkel has all the time in the world and, as if in defiance, she takes a selfie with an Algerian intern who speaks fluent German and wears a headscarf.
Merkel is tired of all the petty debates. Recently, for example, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière saw fit to revive the tired debate over German Leitkultur, or "defining culture," a move Merkel likely was none too pleased about. When you listen to Merkel's staff talk about de Maizière, it's impossible to not to begin thinking of a bumbling child who knocks over glasses and dribbles across the table cloth as soon as mommy turns her head.
It's all so tedious. For the moment, the détente with Horst Seehofer, the powerful head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats, is holding, but Merkel knows, of course, just how fragile it is. She finds it absurd that dual citizenship is once again up for debate due to the Turkish referendum, but those in favor of a policy U-turn on the issue are in the majority. The CDU wants to get rid of dual citizenship, as does, of course, Seehofer. German conservatives may be united in support of Merkel as their candidate for the Chancellery, but they no longer support everything she stands for.
Merkel, according to all the information available, thought long and hard about whether to throw her hat in the ring for a fourth term. In contrast to Helmut Kohl, she is able to imagine a life outside of politics and she senses that the CDU is increasingly drifting to the right, against her will. But when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president last November and it looked like European disintegration was a real possibility, she reached the conclusion that things would fall apart without her.
Around the time of her decision to run again, Merkel frequently spoke of it being her political obligation, but who wants a chancellor who shoulders the burdens of office as Jesus did the cross? And then, Martin Schulz, the erstwhile European Parliament president who is running against Merkel on behalf of the Social Democrats (SPD), pranced onto the stage -- a man who, in comparison to her, seems as energetic as a Labrador puppy. It was only after March state elections in Saarland that Merkel pulled herself together.
Her staff has said that this campaign will be the most difficult of her career and that it won't be enough to simply point to past successes. But in contrast to Schröder, who began as a steady leader before then pushing through far-reaching welfare reforms and finally, during the campaign, rediscovering his passion for social democracy, Merkel has never had the ability to constantly redefine herself.
The Merkel of Old
Plus, she is boundlessly circumspect. During the refugee crisis, she took a risk, that of pursuing a policy that she wholeheartedly believed was the right thing to do. But that was an exception, and her decision triggered a wave of criticism the likes of which she had never before experienced. Ultimately, she helped reseal the borders herself.
Last Tuesday, when Merkel was onstage with Ivanka Trump and someone asked if she was a feminist, her entire train of thought could be seen by all. If she said "yes," it could cost her some votes among men, but if she said "no," women would be angry. Her solution to the predicament was an answer so contorted that nobody could be pleased or offended. The Merkel of old was back.
To German voters, Merkel offers her intelligence and, after almost 12 years in office, her experience. Almost all other politicians that began at the same time she did are now either playing golf or trying their hand at water colors. Only Merkel keeps going. She knows that she has to speak with the deputy crown prince because his political star is rising. And she values the expertise of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan as someone, in her eyes, who knows the region better than almost anyone else. Merkel speaks warmly of the sheikh, making him sound like an old friend who she can always call when the rest of the world seems to be going off the rails.
Like Merkel's domestic policy, her foreign policy is also strangely contradictory. She is prone to a kind of radical pragmatism that sometimes makes one shudder. During her trip to the Persian Gulf, Merkel showed a great deal of understanding for the trials and tribulations faced by local despots. Of course, it's not okay that women aren't allowed to drive. But King Salman is under pressure from the Bedouins, for whom change is already coming too fast. What's a poor monarch to do?
If it were up to Merkel, the German government wouldn't be so reticent about weapons exports. During her lunch with the king, he raved about the precision of German firearms, adding that "a german" remained an expression of high esteem in his country. Now, just because the SPD back in Germany is raising a ruckus over arms exports to Saudi Arabia, the poor king has to order his assault rifles from Russia. Merkel finds it all extremely regrettable.
Does Germany really have to always play the role of moral leader?
A Sullen Mood in Germany
It is, of course, a legitimate question. But when Merkel went before the press with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in Sochi, she reminded the Russian president just how miserable the situation is for gays in Chechnya. As she spoke, Putin's facial expression was so somber it looked almost as though he were already punching in the nuclear codes.
Merkel's chancellorship is notable for its lack of completion. She once said that she worked "as hard as a bee" to solve crises at home and abroad. But the way she goes about her work means that her tenure has been free of climaxes. Merkel never establishes a grand plan, she simply tries to solve the problems as they pile up in front of the Chancellery gates.
Indeed, that is one of the reasons that the mood in the country, with five months to go until the election, is so sullen, even though all objective indicators look good. Unemployment is lower than it has been in a long time and 2017 will again see satisfactory economic growth. Merkel has given Germany 12 more-or-less good years -- and yet the relationship between the chancellor and her fellow citizens has nevertheless worsened.
Gerhard Schröder never forgave the SPD for its lukewarm reception of welfare reform, his greatest achievement. Merkel, for her part, is frustrated that many Germans so vehemently reject her refugee policies. Her preference would be to make those policies part of her campaign, but the surveys she has at her disposal in the Chancellery make it clear that doing so would be akin to political suicide.
The result is that Merkel feels estranged from German citizens just as they feel estranged from her. On Monday morning, shortly before landing in Abu Dhabi, the conversation turns to her visit in the Berlin loft. Wasn't she concerned that the selfies could create new problems for her -- just as those taken in the Berlin refugee hostel in September 2015 had been shared around the world as proof that Merkel was willing to accept anybody and everybody?
Merkel looks up and says she's sorry, but people who claim that refugees would embark across the Mediterranean just because of a couple of selfies are beyond helping. Plus, she adds, she has stopped censoring herself.
She sounds like a chancellor who is enjoying the freedom associated with having been in office for a number of years and who is determined to only do what she thinks is right. If that remains the case, it could make for an interesting campaign.