A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Über-Merkel

After ten years in office, the German Chancellor at last surprises our columnist.
SHARE
, / 2106 0

After a decade of being attacked as an over-cautious pedant, Angela Merkel has quietly buried her old self and impressed friend and foe with an impassioned speech outlining her policies. However, she enters the new year without knowing whether her people will follow.

bpj_online_scally_uebermerkel_CUT

© REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

I admit I’ve never belonged to the most obsessive collectors of Angela Merkel speeches. Once, during a meeting in the chancellery, I even told her as much.

It was the middle of the euro crisis and, tired of wading through one dreary speech after another, I asked her: what exactly is your crisis message, because nothing you’ve said so far has stuck in my mind.

I cringe at the memory of my bluntness, and smile at how she politely but firmly put me back in my box, which my pride won’t allow me to reveal here. But, even in hindsight, I remain of the opinion that most of her speeches were the opposite of political communication.

Listening to her addressing her skeptical Christian Democratic Party in Karlsruhe last week, however, I finally heard a speech with fire in it. So much fire, in fact, that I wondered: who is this woman, and what has she done with Angela Merkel?

The woman who looked like Merkel said the most un-Merkel things. She insisted that aiding refugees coming to Europe was a “humanitarian imperative” and a historic challenge for the continent – and for Germany.

But mastering historic challenges, she said, is something Germany has done so often – rebuilding from postwar rubble in 1945, reuniting the country in prosperity after 1989 – “that it belongs to the identity of our country to master the greatest” challenges.

In her most daring move, she gave her “we can manage this” (“Wir schaffen das!”) remark from last August the stamp of legitimacy by depositing it in the pantheon of historic CDU chancellors and slogans, alongside Helmut Kohl’s “blossoming landscapes” and Ludwig Erhard’s “prosperity for all”.

By extension, Merkel was elevating herself into the annals of historic German leaders. Not since Frederick of Brandenburg crowned himself “King in Prussia” in Königsberg in 1701 – actually placing the newly-minted Prussian crown on his own head – has anyone in Germany tried that one.

But it worked: Merkel’s clear rhetoric and firm argument arc, livened up with some prodigious gauntlet-throwing and critic-baiting, earned her a 10-minute standing ovation and cementing her power unquestioned in the party. In six months grappling with refugees, Germany has gone from “we can manage this” to “no, we can’t” to, now, “we bloody will”.

Burying Merkel 1.0

By burying Merkel 1.0 wait-and-see caution, the Germany leader has emerged as an unquestioned European authority. Unlike most of her hand-sitting European colleagues she has identified the refugee crisis as the challenge our times – economic, political and moral – and taken bold action. She has faced down demands from her allies for a migration cap, arguing that the fundamental human right to refuge knows no arbitrary upper limits.

But, after an exhausting year of housing, processing, and feeding one million refugees in Germany, it’s clear that things can’t go on like this.

Merkel is using up her hard-earned moral and political authority to buy herself some time. But she has made a leap of faith. Measures she hopes will come on-line in 2016 and ease pressure on Germany – an uneasy alliance with Turkey, a new EU border police worth the name, and hotspot registration and redistribution centers at EU borders – are all beyond her direct control.

And, while she waits and watches, the mood in Germany is darkening. The “refugees welcome” mood from the summer, as much media hype as reality, is now far more equivocal. Overshadowed by so-called Islamic State (IS) violence in France, and a growing dread of the inevitable terrorist attack here, German Zukunftsangst (fear of the future) has made a dramatic comeback.

A poll by GfK this week showed that almost two thirds of people – 64 percent – fear for the future. Despite a robust economy and a record low jobless rate even traditionally optimistic young people are gloomy. Some 42 percent of them are fearful for the future, double the rate of just two years ago.

This age of anxiety is a curse for mainstream politicians who carry responsibility for complex problems and a blessing for extremists who offer simple answers without fear of ever having to implement them.

Dresden’s Pegida movement still mobilizes 10,000 people weekly, people who fear for the future of the Occident even if they can’t tell you what it means. And the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has jettisoned its euro bailout-critical economist founder to take a radical right turn on migration. Its support has doubled to around 10 percent, and a state election next March in Baden-Württemberg will be a crucial, if limited, barometer of public opinion.

It has taken her a decade, but, not a moment too soon, Merkel has discovered that she can do good, rallying speeches if the mood takes her and the circumstances demand it. Just before the wheels came off her refugee strategy she retrofitted it with a badly-needed narrative: we are doing this because it is our humanitarian imperative and we will succeed because succeeding against the odds is what we Germans do best.

After a wearying twelve months of disasters – two Paris attacks, the Ukraine standoff, Greek dramas, a plane crash – Angela Merkel ended the year with her most dramatic leap to date: deploying German soldiers to assist the coalition against IS.

It is an engagement that even her close allies admit is, at best, a dangerous step into a military and strategic grey zone. While the rest of us wonder who this new Merkel is, her closest advisers insist they still recognize the woman they work for. Everything she does, they say, she does when her analysis reveals action, however risky, to be alternativlos – without alternative.

After a decade in power, a decade of being attacked regularly as an over-cautious pedant, the German Chancellor has quietly buried her anti-interventionalist self. She has taken Germany from being a solidarity-driven follower to cautious leader. But, for the first time, Angela Merkel heads into a new year without knowing for sure if her people will follow.