A view from South Africa: Angela Merkel, the reluctant world leader

By Ranjeni Munusamy 12 December 2016

In what seems like a plot of a John le Carré novel, US intelligence has discovered that Russia had a hand in getting Donald Trump elected. With the global order being systematically overturned through events in the United Kingdom, America and Europe, is a real life political super villain in the form of Vladimir Putin in the process of taking over the world? Perhaps not. The more obvious threat is the rise of populism and the alternative right, and this tide could sweep through Europe with The Netherlands, France and Germany going to the polls in 2017. Germany’s ambassador to South Africa Walter Lindner spoke to RANJENI MUNUSAMY about his country’s place in the world and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s survival game plan.

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected as chairperson of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party with 89.5% of the vote. Although this is a drop from the 96.7% she received two years ago, it is still a ringing endorsement of her candidacy for re-election for her fourth term in office.

But Merkel had to sing for her supper this time, facing a backlash from voters and from within her party for allowing about a million refugees into Germany last year. In a rather controversial move and what is being seen as a concession to those critical of her decision to open the borders to refugees, Merkel called for a full-face burqa ban in Germany.

It should be banned, wherever it is legally possible,” Merkel said.

Germany’s ambassador to South Africa Walter Lindner says the chancellor had to “give in a few things” and she was willing to pay the price to reach out to people across the spectrum in the CDU and the country.

Merkel seems to have climbed back somewhat with the latest survey by German broadcaster ARD showing a 13% growth in support for Merkel since September, from 46% to 59%. The grand coalition that governs Germany’s federal government looks likely to remain in place after the election despite the threat from the right wing. According to the ARD survey, the right-wing Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) support remained stable at 13%.

Lindner says the big questions now are how much pressure there would be for the Christian Democrats to move to the right and whether the Social Democrats will be able to preserve their identity. “There are also questions about what kind of chancellor will she be and what kind of coalition will emerge,” Lindner said.

When US President Barack Obama visited Berlin last month, he appeared to pass the torch to Merkel, almost endorsing her as the next leader of the free world.

If I was a German and allowed to vote, I would support her,” Obama said at a joint media briefing with Merkel.

In response to a question, Obama said:

It is absolutely true that Chancellor Merkel is going to have significant responsibilities, has had extraordinary burdens that she’s had to carry. If she chooses to continue, you’re right, she will have big burdens. I wish I could be there to lighten her load somewhat, but she’s tough.”

Lindner says Merkel’s style up to now has been to be modest, unassuming and to show no emotion. This suits the type of society that exists in Germany, one that eschews arrogance and bravado. “If we had a loud mouth as leader, it would be bad… We could not have a Trump.”

Lindner said in light of Germany’s involvement in two world wars and “the holocaust on our shoulders”, the country had to stick with its approach of “compromise finding and coalition building”.

It is also wise that our military approach be more reluctant,” he said.

While Germany has the biggest population and economy in the European Union, and has assumed a leadership role, its interest is to strengthen the cooperation in the community. “The EU led us to the world platform again,” Lindner said. “It was build surrounding Germany so we are not doing a solo performance.”

Brexit was a “big shock” and divisions in the EU have been difficult to contend with, he says. The refugee issue became a major source of discord, adding to other difficulties for the community including the financial crisis in Greece, the EU-Canada free trade deal, conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Turkey, and terror attacks in several European nations.

This is the worst moment in history not to be united,” Lindner said.

The resignation of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi last week after he lost a referendum has further added to the sense of the ground shifting. For Merkel, the announcement by French President Francois Hollande that he will not seek re-election also comes as a setback as the two nations worked in tandem. With David Cameron have quit as the British Prime Minister after the Brexit vote, Merkel will be the last leader standing of the G5 club that met in April.

Photo: US President Barack Obama (2-L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C), British Prime Minister David Cameron (L), Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) and French President Francois Hollande (2-R) sit at the table ahead of the US-Europe Summit Meeting in Hanover, Germany, 25 April 2016. EPA/MICHAEL KAPPELE

Lindner says the key to rebuilding unity in Europe would be reform of the EU. He says there were perceptions that Brussels, the seat of the EU, was “too far away from the people”. “People feel there is a bunch of bureaucrats sitting in Brussels who are the elite and decide things on behalf of everyone else,” Lindner said.

To justify the European idea, we need to reduce some of the competencies of the EU that prove not to be necessary and concentrate on those that really matter to the lives of people. They need to get down to the ground to see what’s happening and have an attitude of caring. They cannot be there in some bubble.”

Whether this will be enough to counterweigh the growing nationalism, I don’t know,” said Lindner.

Germany takes over the presidency of the G20 for the next year and while the focus remains on economic and globalisation issues, there will be a broader agenda. Other current challenges such as terrorism, money laundering, taxes, conflicts, corruption and pandemics also need to be tackled, says Lindner.

Through the Africa Compact in the G20, the community would look into the root causes of the flow of refugees, and inequalities between the rich and the poor. The Africa Compact would also deal with vocational job training, infrastructure development and political stability. Lindner says Merkel was of the view that there is not enough investment in Africa and the main task for G20 finance ministers was to improve investment conditions on the continent.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin appears to be on a mission to shake up the world order, and possibly dominate it. But Lindner says their two countries still work well together. “Russia is our neighbour, it is a big market for us and we have a special relationship,” he said. Merkel is likely to be unfazed by the new alignment between Trump and Putin.

She gets things done. Her philosophy is this: ‘You get a task and you get it done – without complaining too much’,” says Lindner.

If the polls get it right this time and barring any interference in the German elections, Merkel will remain in the hot seat for another term. The Putin-Trump axis thwarted one woman’s chances of being the leader of the free world but Merkel, while reticent, already wields power and will not be easy to beat. DM

Photo: Christian Democrats (CDU) chair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech at a CDU regional party conference in Jena, Germany, 02 December 2016. EPA/MARTIN SCHUTT


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