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Konrad Werner: The art of doing nothing

Angela Merkel has mastered the art of doing nothing. It's a fine skill that when practiced incorrectly will blow up in the face of lesser politicians.

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Five EU countries are holding elections this year – the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Italy, Austria, and Germany. Already it’s obvious what you need to do to win them – slag off Angela Merkel, or if you’re in Germany, be Angela Merkel. In the last few days, Silvio Berlusconi, like a big, blubbery, sinful whale, has risen from his fleshy den of debauchery to within three percentage points of the lead in the Italian opinion polls – simply by blaming Germans in general, but Merkel in particular, for all Italy’s troubles. It’s a strategy of naked populism, the more powerful it is, the more transparent it is – but even that is not as simple as Merkel’s own strategy for winning her big election coming up in September.

This is to do nothing – it’s just being Merkel – serene, above it all, the classic Delayer, as the ancient Romans had it, evading open battle. Meanwhile her main opponent Peer Steinbrück persists in his fatally flawed strategy of being Peer Steinbrück. Just by living and huffing and speaking, Steinbrück is sealing his own doom before our eyes. In yesterday’s debate in the Bundestag about the EU budget, Steinbrück even tried to call Merkel on it, by mocking her as the “last minute chancellor” who kept delaying any euro-saving actions she had up her sleeve. But it was not enough. In fact, it was much less than enough.

But doing nothing can be deceptively difficult, as lesser figures know. The FDP leader Philipp Rösler demonstrated beautifully this week how doing nothing can blow up in your face. You may remember how a few months ago, Economy Minister Rösler was exposed as redacting Germany’s Poverty Report – taking out statistics that showed that Germany’s rich-poor divide was getting wider etc., in the service of his pro-business ideology – well, this week he contrived to stay away from the parliamentary debate on that very report and the controversy he created. This made Rösler look like a weasel who didn’t want to stand up for his own ideology when it looked like he might lose the argument. That fine line between being above it and hiding away from it can be so tricky.