Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader by Matthew Qvortrup

Hardcover, 376 pages Pub July 12th 2016 by The Overlook Press (first pub June 7th 2016) ISBN13: 9781468313161

Angela Merkel is a terrific politician. Even those who don't agree with her policies admit to her skill in making space for her own ideas. But we could say that about Donald Trump, too. What makes Merkel an extraordinary, groundbreaking leader is what is in her personality that is opposite to Donald Trump: Merkel isn't in it for the glamour, fame, or money. Ten years ago, she claimed she had no intention of staying on as Chancellor beyond two terms. She is currently running for her fourth term at the end of this year. Why?

Merkel’s desire to stay on as Chancellor of Germany has something to do with legacy and with current danger. Anyone can see the threats in the national and international environment. When one spends many years leading an electorate and shaping a worldview that strengthens one’s country vis-a-vis outside threats to stability, one wants to leave it in safe hands. Qvortrup doesn’t tell us, at the end, whether or not Merkel, unlike Hillary, has groomed a successor who can take over her role should she decamp. Merkel is still young enough to see Germany through another term but then a successor should emerge.

Germany in the late 20th and early 21st Century was as tumultuous as any other nation, resembling the child's game of Chutes & Ladders. Political parties fought for ascendency at the time of the fall of the wall, and Merkel, through luck and instinct, rose within a year to a place in national politics. People liked her. She was unthreatening to higher ups and she was willing to do anything in an organization. She used every opportunity; even handing out leaflets gave her access to voters. She honed her instinct for what was needed, learned what voters wanted and would accept, and was courageous in accepting opportunity and responsibility. Later some would question: Merkiavelli?

Merkel was, and is still, resolutely forward-looking, unlike the kind of national figures in Russia, where Putin wants a return to Tsarist times and America, where Trumps seeks a return to early 20th Century oligarchies. When former Chancellor Helmut Kohl lamented that ‘She is destroying my Europe,’ Merkel responded, “Your Europe, dear Helmut, no longer exists.’ Finally, someone who gets it.

What I find most intriguing about Merkel is her political expediency. Qvortrup makes the point that in politics one doesn’t make ‘friends’ like one does in other fields, but Angela made friends easily compared with her colleagues. She was a little frumpy, clever, kind, generous, unthreatening, and…a brilliant political statistician. During her tenure as Chancellor, she had several cabinet-level ministers, party leaders, and government heads resign in disgrace. She shuffled the deck, calculated odds, sacrificed some appointments, and very shrewdly chose replacements who could strengthen her party's ascendency. She could work with anyone, her listening demeanor polite and cordial. Qvortrup is particularly good on the details here. Merkel’s office was never implicated in any of the scandals, and she never defended those who came under attack. It is said she urged more transparency. Her careful composure under pressure will become a trademark.

Merkel could not afford the distraction of making a scene over news that broke late in 2013 that the United States was monitoring her private telephone. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. She needed American support to counter the Russian encroachment into European sphere. Qvortrup says Merkel “always considered Obama a lightweight,” which runs counter to impressions the American press has broadcast that the two got along famously. She apparently idolized Reagan, I wonder whether for his politics or for his famous charm and political skill at changing the frame of any discussion. Qvortrup also says Merkel was not enthusiastic but not overly alarmed at having to deal with Putin, who was a known quantity to her. This again is counter to previous analyses I have seen. Merkel is able to confound watchers in this way.

Handling the sanctions regime against Russia at the time of the Ukraine invasion and the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 took nerves of steel. Putin was desperate and threatening, but all Europe was suffering under the sanctions, particularly France. Qvortrup goes through this and the Greek financial crisis in detail. Merkel manages, in the summer of 2015, to get Greece to agree to allow the EU to control the money earned from privatization of Greek assets, barring 12.5% for the Greeks to decide how to use. The solution required throwing her Finance Minister under the bus. Qvortrup compares the period to a Greek tragedy with an unanticipated solution, or deux ex machina. This magic trick, pulling the rabbit out of the hat as it were, will need to be unpacked in greater detail in future examinations of this period.

I watched most of Merkel’s first two terms with half-an-eye, but when the Syrian war crescendoed into a full-blown refugee crisis, I turned my gaze full-on Europe. Merkel’s strength of character and leadership skills took my breath away. She'd found an issue more important than her own career and she did not back down. This woman, this frumpy pant-suited attention-sink, did more to embody Christian values than any other European leader while serving the needs of her country and leading Europe by forging an alliance among nations.
“Germany under Merkel became a social liberal state based on ecumenical values.”
Merkel was not an ideologue, but pragmatic. Having lived under communism, she took what was best from it and left the rest. Brexit must have been a terrible disappointment to her idea of a united Europe, and the election of a right-wing nationalist in America threatens Germany’s economic stability and security. Merkel’s expected retirement no longer seems a foregone conclusion. The current threats will require unique responses. Mütter Merkel’s calm and compromise may require a change of pattern. Do Germans think she can do it? Can anyone do it if she cannot?

Qvortrup is admiring of Merkel, as has been every other journalist who has written a biography that I have seen. He is not sycophantic: he tells us when Merkel was perceived as Machiavellian and other criticisms. But to date I still do not have a good sense of why her approval ratings fell, reportedly below 50% in 2015, and what the objections are in Germany to her leadership beyond fear over the influx of refugees. A situation like the refugee crisis needs the whole nation pulling together to make it work. Germany could be a model for those of us who will need to do the same. Migrants and refugees--I doubt I'm breaking news to most of you--is going to be a constant for all of us living in temperate zones in the future. Best we think ahead.

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