Letter from Berlin Chancellor Merkel Looks to Take Off the Kid Gloves

On vacation in the Dolomites, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had an epiphany: To get her government back on track, she has decided to develop a more resolute style of leadership. But with controversial issues looming, it may prove hard to abandon her habitual hesitancy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has decided that her government needs more leadership.
REUTERS

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has decided that her government needs more leadership.

By SPIEGEL Staff


He was known as the Basta chancellor, a reference to the Italian word for enough -- a powerful presence who rarely let political debates get too far before putting his foot down. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was nothing if not decisive.

His successor, however, has been anything but. Chancellor Angela Merkel prefers watching and waiting, she has frequently been accused of dilly-dallying, of equivocating. Prior to becoming Germany's president, Christian Wulff said, in defense of Merkel's leadership style, "a good shepherd leads the herd from behind."

That only works, however, if the herd shows a proclivity for sticking together. Ten months into Merkel's second term, however, her coalition government -- made up of her conservatives paired with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- has been anything but united. From her vantage point at the back of the herd, Merkel has watched as her government bickered and fought its way through the winter and the spring with public support dropping all the while. Now, following a bit of hiking in the Dolomites, she has resolved to change her leadership style, people close to the chancellor have told SPIEGEL.

And she seems to have gotten off to a good start. Armed with a new press spokesman, the former television journalist Steffen Seibert, Merkel jumped right in to the debate currently raging in Germany about nuclear reactor lifespans. Over the weekend, Germany's leading energy producers threatened to shut down some older reactors on their own should Berlin introduce a planned fuel rod tax.

'Isn't Helpful'

In a Monday press conference, Seibert left no doubt as to where the chancellor stood. "When negotiations are underway, it isn't helpful when threats or saber rattling leaks to the outside," he said.

Seibert did it again when asked about possible tax cuts. It is a debate which Merkel thought was behind her. Throughout the autumn and much of the winter, even as dark economic clouds had yet to disperse, FDP head Guido Westerwelle, who is also Merkel's vice chancellor and foreign minister, had insisted on tax cuts. Ultimately, however, Merkel opted in favor of budget consolidation.

New economic data, however, shows that the German economy is growing much faster than expected -- leading Westerwelle to once again muse about the possibility of tax reform. After Monday, it doesn't seem that he will get very far. "Budget consolidation has priority," said Seibert. Despite economic growth, Germany "doesn't have more money, just a bit less debt." In reference to the FDP, he said "the liberals are always thinking about tax cuts. That's just how it is."

Merkel's intention to turn over a new leadership leaf marks a sharp break from her style thus far. She has long been one to watch and wait to see which direction the political winds were blowing before arriving at a decision -- often a carefully balanced compromise. It was a strategy which worked well during her first term when she was paired with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD had been in government for years prior to Merkel's ascendancy to the Chancellery; the party's leadership was reliable.

Hyperkinetic Impulsivity

In her new coalition, however, Merkel finds herself partnered with two politicians who she regards as being extremely irrational. For months after his party snagged a record 14.6 percent of the vote last September, Westerwelle was almost insufferable with his constant pushing of his party's positions, often to the detriment of coalition harmony. His desire for the spotlight has only receded recently, due to poll numbers showing that only 5 percent of Germans would vote for his party if elections were held today.

Still, at least Westerwelle's hyperkinetic impulsivity has been predictable to a degree. Merkel's other partner, Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has proven himself to be something of a loose cannon so far this term. Installed at the head of the CSU two years ago to save the party from sinking into provincial unimportance, Seehofer has done what he can to keep himself and his party in the headlines, even if that means frequently changing his mind, firing barbs at Westerwelle and blocking projects Merkel supports.

By the time summer rolled around, the coalition bickering had resulted in appalling approval ratings. Even as the economy improved, poll numbers for Merkel's government sagged -- all the way down to just 34 percent last week. Something, it became clear to Merkel as she enjoyed the northern Italian Alps, had to be done.

Still, even if she finds her inner Iron Lady, the list of potential clashes is long. Merkel may have managed to put an end to the FDP's yearning for tax cuts -- for now, at least -- but several new issues have cropped up it its place, all waiting in her in-box.

Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU), for example, has made it clear that he would like to put an end to conscription in Germany's army, the Bundeswehr -- a system which has long been near and dear to the CDU. Already, many in the CDU have vowed to fight for conscription, and Seehofer has proclaimed mandatory military service to be a key component of German conservatism. But Merkel herself is sympathetic to Guttenberg's proposal and wants to avoid pulling the rug out from under her defense minister. It will be a delicate decision for a chancellor intent on avoiding yet another rancourous coalition debate.

Waiting for the Dust to Settle

A new proposal by Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen to exert more control over how welfare recipients spend their money by way of a kind of debit card has likewise proven controversial within the coalition. Conservatives have long sought to steer clear of becoming too involved in family decision-making and the CSU has already voiced opposition. Von der Leyen, however, is a close Merkel ally and many have speculated that she may ultimately have a chance at succeeding Merkel at the head of the CDU. Another minefield for Merkel.

And finally, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen remains committed to the goal of making Germany 100 percent reliant on renewable energies by 2050. He has shown an interest in extending the lifespans of Germany's nuclear reactors, but not by much. The FDP, however, want to see lifespans extended as long as possible -- by as much as 14 years. It is a position which many in Röttgen's party also support. Again, it will be difficult for Merkel to stake out a clear position.

In other words, if Merkel plans to make her new resolution a reality, she will have some work to do. The temptation to slide back into her habit of waiting for the dust to settle before making a decision might be difficult to resist.

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