Prior to every meeting of the German cabinet on Wednesday mornings, conservative ministers – politicians from Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union (CSU) – used to meet up for breakfast. But since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, they have been coming together for a video conference instead. For months, Merkel, her team and leading conservative parliamentarians have only been meeting virtually.
Very little from these breakfast meetings makes its way into the public spotlight. There is no agenda, no issues predetermined for discussion. Frequently, one of the participants makes an observation and they all then talk about it. And that is what happened on a Wednesday in early February, when Michael Grosse-Brömer, chief whip for conservatives in parliament, took the floor.
According to meeting participants, Grosse-Brömer noted that farmers were once again driving their tractors through Berlin's government quarter in protest against the completely excessive insect-protection regulations issued by the Environment Ministry, which is under the control of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel's junior coalition partner. "We urgently need to rework them," Grosse-Brömer said. Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner apparently spoke up immediately. Yes, she said, she agrees. It is imperative that something be done about the insect-protection measures.
Klöckner was immediately interrupted by the chancellor. "Yes, then go ahead Julia"! Merkel said, according to participant accounts. Why, she asked, hasn't the agriculture minister been able to clear up the insect issue? Why is it that she, Merkel, is forced to read everywhere that she needs to take control of protecting insects, the chancellor demanded to know?
"Julia, I don't think it’s the Environment Ministry spreading such demands," the chancellor reportedly said. And anyone who thinks that conservatives can ignore the need to protect the bees, she said, "I wish them lots of fun in the campaign." A sheepish silence ensued.
Impatience, petulance, opprobrium extending to accusations of disloyalty: It's not the kind of behavior that is normal for Merkel. Especially not when the discussion is about bees. Usually, the chancellor simply ends such debates with an ironic observation.
Losing Her Stoicism
These days, though, Merkel is struggling to find the energy and patience to consider the fates of Germany's insect population. She is devoting the majority of her waking hours to the fight against the virus, which has cost the lives of more than 60,000 people in Germany. "And still, every single bee ends up on her desk," says a confidant.
The battle against the pandemic is wearing down even the stoic temper of the chancellor. Added to that are the political errors that have been made. To be sure, many of the defeats suffered in this fight are not her responsibility. Sometimes it’s the state governors, sometimes the European health commissioner and sometimes its Germany's own health minister.
Ultimately, though, all eyes turn to the chancellor, whose failures over the course of 15 years in office are being brutally laid bare. Despite the fact that half a dozen members of her government bear responsibility for digitalization, Germany is still way behind on the issue. Despite a German agency recommending in 2012 that the country prepare for a global pandemic, almost nobody in Germany was really ready for it.
Despite myriad warnings in summer 2020, including from Merkel herself, of the dangers of a second pandemic wave, it was allowed to crash over the country at year's end, almost completely unhindered. And despite Germany being the economically strongest country in the European Union, and despite holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU until the end of December, Merkel was unable to leverage that power when it came to buying sufficient quantities of vaccine.
One reason is that the sophisticated negotiating style she has developed over the course of many years has not always proven effective in the pandemic. The state governors – who hold significant power in Germany's federal system – consistently demand compromises, but the virus doesn't care a bit about such political niceties.
By the time elections roll around at the end of September, it is looking as though it won't be the virus that is defeated, but Merkel herself.
More Fearful and Apprehensive
The chancellor's public appearances during the pandemic have frequently sounded something like this: "We know that our R-value is not below 0.7, but hovers around 0.8 to 0.85." If the viral mutations "are more aggressive by a factor of 0.3, then our reproduction value would again be above one, which means we would quickly see exponential growth."
R-values, exponential growth, incidence: One might think that a physicist like Merkel is perfect for this crisis. She has faced a number of crises during her tenure at the top, but with her background in science, the current one seems right up her alley.
In 2008, when the German banking system was facing ruin, she was forced to enter the, for her, unfamiliar world of subprime lending, ratings agencies and bad banks.
When Greece was facing collapse in 2009, almost bringing the rest of the European currency along with it in 2012, the situation was a bit more compatible with Merkel's skill set. While the crisis remained primarily economic in nature, it posed a fundamentally political question: Can a German chancellor allow the eurozone to drop one of its members?
When the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014 and the chancellor found herself in Minsk negotiating a peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, she was able to lean on her personal experience of growing up in East Germany and her understanding of the Russian mentality.
Then, in the 2015 refugee crisis, the primary issue for Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, was a moral one. Was the German chancellor prepared to close down internal European borders and repel refugees with violence if necessary? She wasn't.
The pandemic, likely Merkel's final crisis, leads her back to a time before she entered politics – to her scientific education, which continues to guide the way she thinks and acts today. But it is precisely this expertise – so suitable for this crisis – which is paralyzing Merkel, making her more fearful and apprehensive than others.
Confidants report that the chancellor also spends her weekends reading studies and statistics, speaking on the phone with virologists and even starts performing calculations herself, with the support of her chief of staff, Helge Braun, a doctor who shares Merkel's inclination to design Germany's pandemic response entirely according to scientific tables and graphs.
She has essentially put a stop to all private meetups with artists, actors or old friends over a glass of wine. "She has very little diversion in her life at the moment," reports one person in her orbit.
The result is someone who thinks and talks like a virologist, a chancellor who can tell you from memory the number of intensive care beds Germany currently has available or the number of districts with an incidence rate over 50. A chancellor who doesn't understand why people, given the dangers, can't just manage to remain in lockdown for another two weeks. A chancellor who can't comprehensibly explain why our lives should continue to remain in limbo and the stores remain closed even though infection numbers are plummeting.
"More Empathetic Moments"
"We have decided that hair salons can reopen on March 1," she said during her most recent press conference. "Because by that day, it is extremely likely that Germany's nationwide incidence rate will have dropped to 50." It's maybe not the best way to connect with the electorate.
The fact that the Chancellery recommended in the fall that every child should only meet up with "a single friend" underlines the degree to which the chancellor's focus on statistics has blinded her to the human side of the pandemic equation. "Sometimes," says a confidant, "I have missed more empathetic moments from her, more words of confidence and hope."
Merkel tried recently to once again speak with completely normal people. Her series "Talking with the Chancellor" focused on families in the pandemic. Fourteen mothers and fathers were invited to join her for a video conference, a carefully chosen cast of characters including single parents, those with many children and people who had immigrated to Germany – all friendly and eloquent.
It was an attempt to shed the image of a heartless pandemic hardliner that some have fashioned for Merkel – and one that bothers her. "I will not accept accusations that I torment children," she retorted harshly to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Governor Manuela Schwesig during one round of negotiations.
But the online town meeting served to once again show that Merkel's strengths do not lie in offering comfort and solace. For one-and-a-half hours, she listened to the problems the parents were facing, to the financial tribulations of single parents and to the feeling shared by parents everywhere of having to choose between spending their time with their children or with their jobs. Then she said things like:
"I can't really give you a good answer."
"It of course pains me when I see your unhappiness."
"I really did want something different for Germany."
"I can only repeat what we have said: The first step should be reopening the schools."
The most powerful woman in Germany looked extremely powerless.
When and how the schools in Germany will reopen was also a focus of the meeting of state governors with the chancellor on Wednesday. And Merkel didn't even try to negotiate. Participants quote her as saying she had been hoping for a consensual agreement on waiting a while before reopening. But unfortunately, she continued, some states had reached "different conclusions." The chancellor said she would not question the decisions of the states in public. But in the video conference on Wednesday, she made clear: "This is not my preferred course of action."
More cautious governors, such as Winfried Kretschmann from Baden-Württemberg, who had been hoping for support from the chancellor, reacted with pique: "Angela, I am not happy about your change of course."
Leaving decisions of nationwide importance to others is also not something Merkel is used to. The national government was able to address previous crises on its own. How to address the Ukraine conflict or what measures should be relied on to save the euro are not issues in which state governments have a say. Governors were, of course, heavily involved in the refugee crisis, but the primary focus was on money, and Berlin holds the biggest purse strings. The political course was charted in the Chancellery, in federal parliament and in the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Merkel was the focus of a lot of anger at the time, but at least that anger was triggered by her own policies, her own approach and her own mistakes. Now, she just says that she has no choice but to accept the authority of the German states. The fact that infection numbers exploded in the winter, she says, was a consequence of "our indecisive approach in late summer and fall." It can be assumed that the chancellor does not believe that her own approach was indecisive.
"We lost control of it in October," she recently complained in a meeting with leading parliamentary conservatives. Back then, when the state governors were unwilling to accept a hard lockdown, Merkel had Chief of Staff Helge Braun complain openly that the measures agreed to unanimously by the states were insufficient.
Now, she has begun talking about her own impotence. In Germany's federalist system, she says, the chancellor doesn't have a veto like in the EU. Legally, though, she could push through a national law to impose a lockdown, and even to close the schools. But such a forceful approach is not Merkel's style. She would rather run the risk of the states making what she believes to be erroneous decisions, before then demonstratively rejecting responsibility for those decisions.
"I need a break, I need some fresh air," Merkel allegedly said abruptly during one of the meetings with state governors, according to a meeting participant, who added that the chancellor has sometimes become so agitated with discussions that she'll suddenly bow out.
But did Merkel really say such a thing? "Nonsense," says another participant in the meeting. Yes, the chancellor needs a break every now and then. But it's not like she stares at the wall or goes out to the balcony for a cigarette. Instead, she continues negotiating with a smaller group.
Since video conferencing has taken over the political world, a lot of quotes, half-sentences and outbursts find their way into the public eye on Twitter and on news websites, including Spiegel.de. Supporters of Merkel complain that they aren't always real, or are incomplete, free of context and inaccurate. Confidants of the chancellor say that the constant leaks and misunderstandings annoy her greatly.
Still an Opportunity
She doesn't often complain vocally, as she did during a meeting with conservative domestic policymakers – at a time when news was making the rounds that she had allegedly demanded the lockdown be continued until Easter. Instead, she prefers to rely on sarcasm, say those close to her, starting meetings with bon mots such as: We don't really need to meet. "Everything is in Bild anyway" – a reference to Germany's largest tabloid newspaper. This quote, too, of course, is the result of a leak.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there are no safe rooms any longer for confidential political discussions. It makes life easier for journalists, but for politicians, it means they have to weigh each word with extreme care, as if they were speaking on camera. And for a chancellor who has been in office for 15 years and hasn't always demonstrated expert communications skills, it must be unbearable.
Merkel has a bit more than seven months until the fall general election, time that will be almost entirely focused on the battle against the coronavirus. Despite the numerous other issues on which she has not managed to find closure. There is still no high-speed internet in rural areas, no real answer to the climate disaster, and no strategy for integrating refugees into German society. There is no answer to prevent Germany's economy from being swallowed up by China. But none of those issues are about life and death.
"Merkel knows that the history books are currently being rewritten," says one state governor. And her legacy will depend a great deal on whether she will be successful in warding off the virus to the degree possible, vaccinating the population, protecting the elderly and supporting the economy. Merkel herself, say confidants, believes that there is still an opportunity to do all of that. But it's not a slam dunk.
"Sometimes, Merkel sounds really dark," says the governor. "She'll tell us: Soon, I won't be responsible anymore. Then it will be up to you to protect our prosperity."
In her most recent speech in parliament, Merkel promised to fulfill her mandate "until the very last day of my tenure to defeat this pandemic." And: "Ultimately, we could succeed in leading our country into better times."
We could succeed.
She used to be known for a more confident pronouncement: We can do this.