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  • Robin Alexander: “The Merkel approach has come to an end”


Robin Alexander: “The Merkel approach has come to an end”

Has the most powerful woman on the world stage lost grip on her own country? That’s what star political analyst Robin Alexander explains in Machtverfall, a gripping, behind-the-scenes account of her final years in office.

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Robin Alexander, Die Welt deputy editor and best-selling author, has been following Merkel for 12 years as chancellery correspondent, making him one of Germany’s most respected analysts of power politics and a regular on prime-time talk shows. Photo: Martin Lengemann

Your book might surprise some international Berliners. From abroad, Angela Merkel is seen at the top of her game: No foreign head of state enjoys such great popularity, let alone after 16 years in office. Everyone’s wondering what her secret is! And then you go and write about her ‘declining power’, Machtverfall. Can you explain?

That’s exactly why I started the book with Merkel going to the White House [in March 2017]. Because the last chapter of Merkel’s story is that she personally buys into this overseas perception of her being the beacon of the liberal West. It’s mostly an Anglo-American perception, and she likes it. That is why, two years later, she delivered the most important speech she has delivered in the past five years – not in the Bundestag or at a CDU rally, but at Harvard, in front of an American audience. It makes no sense for a German audience. And what she’s doing here in Germany is a totally different story.

So from a domestic perspective, you see her power declining. How so?

The first thing is that she’s been trying to solve the corona crisis, and it’s not working. She isn’t getting the results she wants, and even she admits that. She apologised to the public for the first time in 16 years, and in the Bundestag she was close to tears! That’s the ‘Machtverfall’ right there: the woman who stands up against Trump on the world stage isn’t able to do what she wants at home because “Gartenzwerge” – small-time politicians – are stopping her from doing what she wants.

The second thing is that the CDU, her party, is struggling internally and in the polls. After the 2017 elections, a Jamaica coalition [CDU-FDP-Green] would have made sense for the country, but she didn’t manage it because the liberals said, “We’re not doing it with Merkel!” So the President had to force another grand coalition with the SPD, and that was not a good government, at least until corona came. They were fighting all the time, they didn’t deliver results.

Would you say that this perception from abroad – the way she essentially got endorsed with a special mission to stand up against Trump – played a decisive role in her decision to run for a fourth mandate? For many in Germany, that last mandate was one too many…

If she’s honest, she thinks that herself. She didn’t want that last mandate. She always said, “I don’t want to leave as a wreck.” It took her months to decide whether to run again. She was exhausted. Then Trump came along, and nobody expected Trump. Everyone was sure it would be Hillary. So it was a new situation. Obama flew here a week after Trump’s election for a private pep talk at Berlin’s Adlon… And she accepted the role. She would go to the White House and she wasn’t going to bring a golden golf club like the Japanese. She was not going to court Trump – she was going to confront him. So this last term made sense, at least from an international perspective.

That’s the ‘Machtverfall’ right there: the woman who stands up against Trump on the world stage isn’t able to do what she wants at home.

Your take on her (mis)handling of the corona crisis may come as a revelation to many. From abroad, she’s credited with displaying decency and competency in the face of this pandemic. Her scientific background has helped her stay on top of graphs and numbers while other heads of state looked clueless. Even here in Germany, she reassured people!

We live in a world run by hot-headed male politicians. So we feel the need to have someone rational at the top. And she is that. That’s not only a perception, that’s reality. But Merkel’s government completely misunderstood what happened in China. They only got scared when it reached Lombardi. Everyone had been on holiday to Bergamo, so it suddenly felt close to home! Then Merkel delivered that televised speech in March 2020, a week after everybody went into lockdown, and she said what every German thought was the right thing to say. Her communication was good, the lockdown was okay, but what the German state failed to deliver was everything beyond a lockdown.

The way we handled the schools… We shut them twice and the second time, nobody was prepared! We don’t have digital learning, and so on. We have a great vaccine developed by a German company, but it takes the Americans and Pfizer to roll it out. Everyone else started vaccinating weeks before us, which cost lives. Merkel’s decision to delegate the vaccine process to the European Commission and Ursula von der Leyen was a failure. It didn’t work, at least not in the way it should have worked. When we started with tests, we were six weeks behind Austria. So corona is like a spotlight on German deficits. And people understood that. But sure, they still love her style.

The question is, what could she have done better? You can’t really blame her for the vaccine debacle – that was a collective EU failure. For once she tried to be a good, solidarisch player. She’s come a long way since her own personal Greek drama with the 2015 austerity measures!

Well, she had to polish her legacy. It’s a stain on her reputation that she imposed those austerity measures, which were super popular in Germany but nowhere else. And if you look at what economists are saying today, it was the wrong policy. So now, in the very last stretch of her chancellorship, she lets the EU organise the vaccine programme and goes along with European recovery funds, which is exactly what she opposed during the euro crisis.

So what went so wrong with the domestic corona response?

She tried to rule Germany like she ruled the eurozone. She invented the Ministerpräsidentenkonferenz [a conference with the 16 state premiers, which was held regularly throughout the pandemic], basically the equivalent of the European Council, and those guys didn’t deliver. There was political infighting, some of them just didn’t get it… It took them until March to come up with a ‘federal emergency brake’ [which forces lockdown measures if corona cases exceed a certain level]. Why not have a debate in the Bundestag on how to handle Covid? Why a conference that is not in our constitution and confers behind closed doors, with everything leaked through Twitter and Bild?

Image for Robin Alexander:

Merkel has relished her great reputation abroad, as “beacon of the liberal West”. In 2019, she delivered the most important speech of her final term not in the Bundestag but at Harvard. Photo: IMAGO / UPI Photo

You mentioned that Merkel made her big corona speech one week into the lockdown. That’s very much on brand, right? She takes a backseat, and just goes along with society…

Typical Merkel! Everyone got scared of the situation in Italy and went into lockdown, and only then, a week later, did she make a speech on TV, saying, “Okay, let me tell you why it’s a good thing.” It was the same with the refugee crisis.

That’s what you described in Die Getriebenen, your book about the behind-the-scenes drama that led to Germany opening its borders in 2015. You showed that Merkel was not the principled, decisive leader Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis once said she has no vision, but she’s the most skilful at managing a situation. Would you agree?

Exactly. Consider [Carl von] Clausewitz’ military theory. He asks: What do we want? A goal. How do we get there? A strategy. What is the next step? A tactic. On tactic, Merkel scores great. On strategy, she’s very flexible. But in terms of goals? She’s got no defined ones.

Don’t you think that may be the reason why she’s credited with so many policies she actually never stood for? During that Harvard visit you referred to, she was fêted as the woman who brought in the mini- mum wage and the phase-out of nuclear power, who saved the eurozone, welcomed refugees and legalised same-sex marriage… most of which she initially opposed, didn’t she?

Yes, she was against the minimum wage and against gay marriage, which she herself voted against. She favoured prolonging nuclear power plants and, well, you know what happened with the eurozone. She gets credit for everything she stands against, but in a way, she deserves it, because when she gets the feeling that something is coming anyways, she arranges for it to happen. We have a tradition of that. Even Frederick the Great said he was the first civil servant of the state.

Is this a German way to do politics? I was recently talking to a friend, who, despite being a green lefty, positively loves Merkel, the way she looks for consensus instead of imposing her political vision. You don’t see many leaders ruling that way. Macron, Johnson, Trump or even Obama – they’re all cocksure, pro-active leaders.

And that’s why she never got along with them, even Obama. He was a real problem for her because he had great vision and could rally people behind causes, which is not in Merkel’s playbook. She distrusts that and didn’t like Obama in the beginning. Until Trump came along… Then they became best friends! In fact, for many years she enjoyed dealing with Putin. That only stopped with the Minsk peace process, not with the Ukraine crisis itself. She’d run to Minsk with a super sophisticated deal like: “Move these arms 10 kilometres west and move that thing there.” This is a war, it’s a big thing, and her solution was, like, in millimetres. This is typical Merkel – she likes fixing things in the details. But Putin cheated. He didn’t move those weapons like he said he would. Before that, she enjoyed working with Putin, because he is like a chess player, and he plays top league games. Same with Orban – he is like a chess player too. But she never dealt well with someone like Erdoğan – he’s a street fighter, a bully.

Image for Robin Alexander:

Despite their differences, Merkel could relate to Putin’s chess-playing style of politics, says Alexander. On the other hand, Obama’s bold, visionary leadership clashed with her pragmatic style. Photo: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

You’ve been covering Merkel for 12 years now. Has she ever surprised you?

Well, before she ‘opened the borders’ in 2015, you could have asked anyone in political Berlin who knew her closely and 10 out of 10 would have said, “That will not happen, never.” The morning the Hungarian ambassador formally asked the Interior Ministry if Germany would accept refugees from the railway station in Budapest, the feeling was no. Having control is central to Merkel. Opening the borders with no checks? Nobody would have predicted that. Nobody.

In your book, you describe Merkel’s quasi-obsessive hygiene routine. Is she still so scared of catching Covid?

Yes, she is. She wipes down everything all the time. She has those sanitising wipes in her handbag. When it came out that the virus was airborne, she moved the cabinet meetings to a massive international conference room where the ministers can only hear each other if they use microphones. She tells everybody that the air in this conference room is exchanged eight times an hour. One of her fears was getting infected by her personal driver.

Other CDU members started sending home their chauffeurs and driving themselves, but Merkel isn’t allowed to drive any of her heavy armoured cars – only federal police can. For security reasons, she can’t walk the 500m between the Chancellery and Reichstag either. So she ditched her BMW/Mercedes/Audi vehicles in favour of a three-row VW van – so that she could sit in the back row. She is ultra cautious indeed. And that’s why she is so frustrated! Because she wanted stricter measures. But the German corona response is a compromise between her and the 16 state premiers.

She wipes down everything all the time… One of her fears was getting infected by her personal driver.

Interestingly, one of those state premiers who pushed back on her corona stance was CDU leader Armin Laschet, the man supposed to succeed her as chancellor. Today, it’s no longer clear who Merkel would prefer as a successor. It seemed she was close to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and then that fell apart… Now what?

Her main point always was: not Friedrich Merz. She would have preferred a Green successor to him. She liked AKK, but moving on was typical Merkel. If a new situation arises, it’s like a new poker game, and all the cards are dealt anew. Markus Söder was her arch-enemy during the refugee crisis; now he’s an ally as a corona hardliner. Same with Sebastian Kurz, who was the anti-Merkel on Europe; then came corona and it’s like, “Oh, he’s my best friend!” That was frustrating for AKK and now for Laschet. They’ve supported her for years, they really helped her when she was in trouble, and she’s not paying back that loyalty. But that’s not her concept of politics. It’s not that she feels unloyal, but “I expect you to help me because I helped you four years ago” isn’t part of her universe. It’s the same with party loyalties. For example, Karl Lauterbach from the SPD, who reads a lot of science, has better access to Merkel than Jens Spahn, her own (CDU) Health Minister.

That’s why the CDU rank-and-file are so frustrated. It’s not because Merkel is less conservative, it’s because the CDU has this image of itself as a family. They don’t really have a programme, they don’t have a vision, other than saying: “We go a long way back, we have experienced a lot of things together, we belong together.” You don’t have to like your uncle, but he’s still your uncle. But for Merkel, the CDU is just a tool like the RKI or any other government body. And that’s a completely different thing from AKK or Laschet’s approach. Laschet defeated Merz and his first thought was: How can I keep him on board? “I defeated him, but he’s family. It’s our Merz. We need him.”

I also read about feminism and Merkel, but that’s ridiculous. She doesn’t care if you’re male or female. Her approach is: What can this person deliver? That’s all.

Do you think she even cares who fill her shoes?

That’s a good question. At a recent government press conference, she gave a very strange answer when asked about Laschet. She referred to the CDU as “the party of which I’m a member”, not “my party”. A lot of people say she’s voting for the Greens! Although I personally don’t think that.

Do you think the Greens can really take on the CDU?

The Greens’ strategy would have worked perfectly against Merz and it would have worked well against Söder. It’s not working so well against Laschet because he’s not a right-wing figure; he’s a liberal. He was on the Merkel line before Merkel was on the Laschet line, and he really means it. He really is a very liberal Christian Democrat.

What about Olaf Scholz?

Not so long ago, the SPD seemed done. But Scholz is a professional and he worked well with Merkel. A year and a half ago, he said to me that people won’t realise Merkel is leaving until campaign posters are up and they see she’s not on them. She’s so culturally dominant that they all revolve around her: Laschet says, “I’m from the same party”; [Green chancellor candidate Annalena] Baerbock says, “I’m a woman, too”; and Scholz says, “I was her deputy for the last four years.”

It’s as if people are getting nostalgic about Merkel before she’s even left. How do you explain that?

Usually, when a leader finally leaves the scene after a long reign – Kohl, Adenauer, Bismarck even – you have this period of “finally something new” euphoria. Only five or 10 years later do people get nostalgic and start erecting statues. But I think you’re right, this euphoric relief won’t happen this time, because Germany is afraid of what’s coming. When the refugee crisis came, [Bundestag president and CDU veteran] Wolfgang Schäuble called it “a rendezvous with globalisation”. And that’s exactly what Germans hate. They don’t want that “globalisation” and Merkel has promised to keep it away from them: “You know me, I’ll manage… We can still send arms abroad, but it won’t affect you.” The next few years are set to be a tough time: There’ll be the Energiewende [policy to phase out coal power], maybe more immigration headaches… That’s going to be stressful, and people don’t want that stress. So we’re going to see a narrative of: “Oh, those cosy Merkel times…”

So, she’s basically hijacked the political agenda…

Pretty much. But at the same time, we all have that feeling that the Merkel approach – “The world is getting worse from day to day, but don’t worry, I’ll solve these problems for you” – has come to an end. It wasn’t the worst approach in the world, but maybe it’s time to be proactive. The approach [Robert] Habeck wanted for the Greens was, “Merkel solves problems, but that’s not enough; we have to get ahead of the situation. We have to address problems before they occur.” We have to talk about refugees before they are here, tackle climate change before it’s too late, and so on.

Look at Poland: a stupid government doing stupid things. What would Merkel have done? Nothing, passed the problem on to the European Commission and waited. What would Kohl have done? Given them money, bribed them. [laughs] So what would Habeck and Baerbock do? Go there and force them into a process?

What do you think Germans want next?

That’s the decisive question, and that’s why it’s so disappointing and frustrating to see the lack of serious debate. I’m from Die Welt, I’m not voting Green, but I wanted a strong Green candidate, because they raise some interesting questions.

Merkel said that once out of office, she won’t be involved in German politics any more. She wants to do something totally different – like what?

It’s just a guess, but I think she might go overseas. I think Germany is boring to her now, and she likes to be surrounded by scientists. My prediction is that she will be doing something at Harvard or Stanford. She can go there together with her husband, who happens to be a really good scientist. They could take two professorships at West Coast universities. I’m betting she’ll never visit a CDU party convention again.

Robin Alexander, Die Welt deputy editor and best-selling author, has been following Merkel for 12 years as chancellery correspondent, making him one of Germany’s most respected analysts of power politics and a regular on prime-time talk shows. He started his career as a reporter for taz and a political columnist for Exberliner. His 2017 book, Die Getriebenen – Merkel und die Flüchtling- spolitik (‘Driven out – Merkel and refugee policy’), dominated Spiegel’s bestseller list for weeks and was praised as a real-life “political thriller”.