Incorruptible, indestructible: The unassuming power of Angela Merkel

By Ranjeni Munusamy 29 June 2016

German Chancellor Angela Merkel might be known as “Mutti” or Mommy in her country but she is not about to kiss the United Kingdom’s (UK) forehead to make it feel better about its planned exit from the European Union (EU). In her vintage steely but even tone, Merkel made it clear on Tuesday that there would be no special favours to make the UK’s exit easier. The Brexit vote was an affront to Merkel’s vision for a united Europe. In spite of this and a backlash in Germany over the migration issue, Merkel is on her way to another term as Chancellor next year. With the possibility of South Africa’s next president being a woman, RANJENI MUNUSAMY was in Berlin to find out what makes the world’s most powerful woman tick.

Most Germans are surprised when asked what it’s like to have a woman leader. “She is a woman, yes, but she is politician first,” Andreas tells me on the high-speed train between Cologne and Berlin. Andreas is not currently thrilled with the German Chancellor. He is an IT guy in a company based in the Saxony-Anhalt state but prefers to live in Berlin. He has a lot to think about during the four-hour commute to and from work daily.

Andreas does not think Angela Merkel is a bad leader – in fact he grudgingly admits that most things work irritatingly well in Germany. His disgruntlement is over the influx of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Many Germans welcomed the surge of refugees last year, particularly those escaping the horrors in Syria through the hellish journey across the Aegean and Mediterranean and several countries en route that did not want them.

The German government estimates that around 1.1 million refugees arrived in the country last year. The flow has slowed down significantly since the EU-Turkey deal was forged in March to reduce the march into Europe. Andreas believes the deal was too little too late and that his government does not have a proper count of people who crossed into Germany, or a plan about what to do with them.

The migration issue has led to the rise of the right wing throughout Europe, with scaremongering about the dilution of national identity, religion and culture. The most notable impact has been the outcome of the Brexit referendum, with 51.9% of British voters opting to leave the EU. Brexit has caused an unprecedented political and economic fallout in Britain and around the world.

While Britain’s leaders flounder about what to do next and how to do it, EU leaders are meeting in Brussels to discuss their response. Before leaving for the EU headquarters, Merkel set the tone for the meeting in a speech to the Bundestag in which she declared there would be no special favours for the UK such as continued access to the European single market.

“We will make sure that negotiations will not be carried out as a cherry-picking exercise. There must be and there will be a palpable difference between those countries who want to be members of the European family and those who don’t,” Merkel said. This pours cold water on lead Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson’s proposal that the UK might “take back democratic control of immigration” while it continued to enjoy free market access.

“Whoever wants to leave this family cannot expect to shed all its responsibilities but keep the privileges,” Merkel told the German parliament in her usual measured tone than conceals the grit of Europe’s most powerful leader.

Merkel rose to power in a way that stunned her opponents, all of whom underestimated her studious manner and seemingly colourless personality. Hers is an extraordinary story, from an unremarkable research scientist in East Germany whose destiny changed when she was appointed by Helmut Kohl as reunified Germany’s minister of women and youth. Strangely, she never positioned herself as a feminist – then or now. If anything, Merkel makes an effort to be seen as neutral in all things, including her gender.

However, her testosterone deficiency is seemingly one of her greatest assets. She outsmarted all her male rivals in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who had formed an alliance, the Pacto Andino, to help each other rise to power. Kohl, who had often referred to Merkel as “mein Mädchen” (my girl) got a taste of her tenacity when she criticised him during a party funding scandal, which also included the then CDU leader Wolfgang Schäuble.

Then secretary general of the CDU, Merkel penned an opinion piece saying the following: “The Party must learn to walk now and dare to engage in future battles with its political opponents without its old warhorse, as Kohl has often enjoyed calling himself.” She went on to say: “We who now have responsibility for the Party, and not so much Helmut Kohl, will decide how to approach the new era.”

Words to live by, perhaps, when dealing with old warhorses immersed in scandal.

Her ability to stand up to the big party men saw her being elected as the first woman leader of a German party in 2000. Five years later, she became Germany’s first female Chancellor. Since then, no German politician has been able to match her popularity or tenacity. She is now also the longest serving leader in the EU, and by far the most influential.

A former journalist at Der Spiegel says Merkel is always modest in her appearance and therefore rarely identified by her gender. She always wears the same formless business suits in various colours, making it unnecessary for the media to comment on her appearance. There was one occasion however, on her 60th birthday two years ago, when Merkel appeared in a blue and black evening gown with a plunging neckline. The pictures caused a sensation. “One never wants to see that much of your chancellor,” says the former journalist.

Merkel was nicknamed “Mutti” which means Mommy by her political rivals, which she resented at first but later accepted when it caught on publicly. But she has never been seen as weak or vulnerable. The Mommy tag did however strike a chord at the height of the refugee influx last year. Many refugees, particularly those fleeing the conflict in Syria, saw Merkel as an embracing mother figure who would give them shelter and new lives. But the reality is more complicated with long, intense bureaucratic processes to apply for asylum and integrate the refugees into German society.

Dr Christoph Steegmans is the former deputy spokesman in Merkel’s government, who worked closely with her current spokesman Steffen Seibert. Steegmans says there will be two issues that will define Merkel’s legacy: European unity and migration. Both these issues are hot potatoes, much to Merkel’s frustration.

Steegmans, who travelled extensively with Merkel, including to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, describes the chancellor as someone who is extremely meticulous and always measured. “She chooses her words two levels below her true feelings,” he says. There are never extremes in her statements – instead of saying something is terrible she would say it is “not good”. Similarly, rather than to describe something as wonderful, Merkel would simply say it is “not bad”.

Merkel is hands-on in managing the communications and messaging of her government. Three times a week, Seibert and the spokespeople of all ministries appear at the Bundespresskonferenz where journalists grill them on the work of government and world affairs. The spokespeople are extensively briefed and also receive a bundle of briefing notes from their departments before appearing in front of the media. Merkel calls Seibert, or the deputy spokesman if he is not available, before each briefing. Steegmans says this is a five-minute conversation during which she gives her take and possible soundbites on topical issues.

Merkel is all business, rarely letting her hair down. (Her hairstyle is another thing that is deliberately kept unstylish so as not to draw attention) A woman minister who had a baby was acknowledged during a Cabinet meeting. Merkel’s congratulations were pleasant but formal. No gushing over the newborn or enquiries about breastfeeding or sleeping patterns.

Merkel is divorced from her first husband and is married to quantum chemist Professor Joachim Sauer. People joke that he is a veritable phantom who occasionally appears unexpectedly but is otherwise invisible. Sauer very rarely accompanies Merkel to official events – he occasionally attends G7 summits and joined the programme during US President Barack Obama’s visit to Germany.

One of Merkel’s biggest challenges is how to deal with the big man syndrome in the male-dominated world of politics. She never panders to male dominance but rather chooses to overlook it. Whether it is Vladimir Putin or Silvio Berlusconi, Merkel holds her own and never succumbs to chauvinism.

There is a legendary story of an incident that could easily have been in the script of the House of Cards television series. Merkel has a fear of dogs after being bitten by one many years ago. At a meeting at Putin’s residence in Sochi, the Russian leader called his dog into the room where he and Merkel were seated in front of the press corps. Although Merkel was visibly afraid, she kept her composure while Putin sat back and grinned. Later she remarked to the media about Putin’s behaviour: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man.”

Merkel’s ability to keep her composure is a skill. Once during an official dinner, a deputy Prime Minister started telling bad jokes – a situation that could be dilemma when diplomatic relations are being juggled. Merkel apparently maintained a neutral face throughout without commenting. The moment passed.

She does have her moments of kidding around with her officials and the media. She apparently has a talent for imitating people, especially German politicians. Occasionally she mimics foreign leaders. One can only wonder if she has attempted The Donald yet.

But when it comes to politics and issues of principle, Merkel is all steel. A journalist who accompanied her on a visit to China earlier this month says Merkel kept the issue of human rights at the top of the agenda. She mentioned it in every speech and even met with Chinese dissidents at the German Embassy after meeting the Chinese President. The Chinese leadership could only smile politely – they know better than to attempt to tell Merkel what she can and cannot say, not wanting to put 60 billion euros of German investment in China at risk.

By the end of this year, Merkel might have a competitor for the position of most powerful woman in the world. Those who know her and work with her say Merkel is likely to have a good working relationship with Hillary Clinton, based solely on common diplomatic interests. No swopping of numbers for pants suit tailors.

Merkel initially did not think much of Obama, even denying him the honour of speaking at the historic Brandenburg gate in Berlin while he was on the campaign trail. They developed a functional relationship when Obama became president but this hit the rocks when it emerged, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that the National Security Agency had been monitoring Merkel’s calls for a decade.

There will be a change of leadership in two of the world’s powers, the US and the UK, over the next few months. With global turbulence over the economy, terrorism and migration, international relations and the world order are in a state of flux. The one steady hand will be that of the German Chancellor. Although her ratings and that of her party have taken a knock in the past year, she is set to be elected for a fourth term in office (there are no term limits in Germany). After 11 years in power, there is no scandal to speak of, no hint of corruption and no indication that she has any intention to sully her legacy.

Merkel has been named nine times as Forbes most powerful woman in the world and was Time’s Person of the Year for 2015 – appearing on the cover as “Chancellor of the Free World”. She has carved a place for herself in history, not as a lovable mother figure or the “iron lady” typecast but as a leader who overcame gender stereotypes to take her seat at the high table of global politics.

What makes Angela Merkel who she is? True grit. DM

Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman (not seen) after his first official visit, Berlin, Germany, 27 June 2016. EPA/KAY NIETFELD.


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