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The Merkel enigma

Gavin Hewitt | 11:43 UK time, Monday, 28 September 2009

merkel595.jpgIt is strange in the aftermath of a campaign, when a candidate has been examined and dissected, that the basic questions are still being asked on the day after. But with victory secure and with a new coalition partner it is being debated in Germany: "Which Merkel will run the country?"

Even though she made the election about herself, about her ability to manage a crisis, she retains a mask. One of the papers here in Germany probed the Merkel mystery and concluded that it is difficult to define her - and that that is the secret to her success.

Back in 2005, she supported radical reforms but then backed away from implementing them as chancellor. At times she positioned herself above the political rough-house. She was the leader who sought compromise, whose basic instinct was caution. She was a centre-right politician who shored up public service pensions, who subsidised short-term working to keep thousands in jobs.

Some in her own party became suspicious and believed she had shed her party skin and had deliberately set herself up as the "mother of the nation". Indeed one of her closest aides told me that within the Chancellery they referred to her as "mummy" - although not to her face.

She was, of course, inhibited by her coalition with the Social Democrats, her natural opponents. Now she is to be wedded to the Free Democrats. They believe in lower taxes, a smaller state with less regulation, where it is easier for companies to hire and fire. At one time they would have been her ideological allies.

So will a more radical Merkel emerge? Probably not. Firstly, although she and the Free Democrats want tax cuts they are hemmed in by the spiralling budget deficit. Secondly, she wants to move away from fiscal stimuli as soon as possible, but she'll want to be certain growth is bedded down before risking strangling the recovery at birth. So her natural ally, caution, may prevent her in the short-term being a more radical chancellor.

She is likely to find the political climate harsher despite her victory. Old politics has returned in a left-right divide. The weakened Social Democrats, without the shackles of coalition, will feel free to attack her. Other leftist parties and some of their union allies will be on guard against any weakening of the safety nets that cushion German workers.

But she has time. The truth is that in the midst of Germany's worst recession since the war, with the greed and excesses of capitalism laid bare, the centre-left made little headway. Cleverly Angela Merkel led the demand, at the recent G20 meeting, for bonuses to be capped. She insisted that the international community could not return to where we were before recession struck. International finance needed closer regulation, she demanded. It was clever politics. She stole the left's clothes. It left them without a script. They have not managed to convince voters that they are better placed to lead the country out of recession and to bring down unemployment, which continues to rise.

So, I suspect Germany will tack to the right but Angela Merkel will remain a pragmatic politician who shies away from confrontation but will fight fiercely for German interests as she has done over the car industry.

Internationally she and her new allies are Atlanticists who will remain close to Washington. Her former coalition partners - the Social Democrats - wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. A newly-elected Angela Merkel will hold the line in support of the 4,200 German troops in Afghanistan while the mood across Europe is souring on the Afghan mission.

After yesterday, Angela Merkel is in a position to re-assert Germany's leading role in Europe.

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  • 1. At 1:05pm on 28 Sep 2009, john brendan sullivan wrote:

    I am wondering if Angela Merkel will have a nasty new militancy on the left to deal with.The return of the the fdp to government is a rred rag to some.Water cannon time?

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  • 2. At 2:06pm on 28 Sep 2009, ishkandar wrote:

    It was alleged that she had always wanted to be Mrs Thatcher Mark 2 !! Could she be on the way to achieving her ambition ??

    Still, being pragmatic is no bad thing, especially when the "radical" measures, much trumpeted by other countries, turn out to be such duds, to put it mildly !!

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  • 3. At 3:03pm on 28 Sep 2009, U11846789 wrote:

    "Germany has been enduring its most severe recession since World War II".

    "While business confidence has improved and Europe's largest economy has returned to growth, output is still set to be down by around 5% this year, and the country's unemployment level and budget deficit are rising".

    (From the BBC article on Merkels victory).

    Replace the word "Germany" with any other country in the west you'd care to name! All of them are in the same boat.

    And yet some have left-wing governments, some have right-wing. Some will re-elect their current government and others will throw them out.

    Funny old world.

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  • 4. At 3:03pm on 28 Sep 2009, Dublin_Dilettante wrote:

    What shines through this article, yet again, is the BBC's wilful refusal to acknowledge that the failure of former social democratic parties like the SDP does not constitute a failure of the "left." What it really indicates is the failure of those Blairite parties, now completely given over to neoliberalism, to offer a left alternative. The (somewhat) genuine left alternative, Die Linke, was enormously successful.

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  • 5. At 3:07pm on 28 Sep 2009, Luis wrote:

    Angela Merkel couldn't want to be a new Thatcher. The differences are huge, she is an intelectual scientist born in East Germany and above all pragmatical. What counts is the correct social balance of Germany. Also to be from the "centre right" in Germany has nothing to do with the Tories, again social justice being the relevant attitude.
    Also who said that the Christian Democrats are right in the British sense of politics? Unless Britain finds a way of finishing with first past the post the number of voter is going not to be representative of the population in general. so what is the point of voting?

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  • 6. At 3:48pm on 28 Sep 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    It hardly matters. No matter who is the chancellor, the government will be burdened by the restrictions the EU places on it. A burden of taxes, regulations, transfer of wealth, immigration that are beyond its control but which strongly impact the effectiveness, even legality of any ideas or programs they want to try. Germany and France have more control than other EU nations but there are limits. Germany and France for example were able to nullify the Growth and Stability pact in Maastrict when they were the only ones violating it and they did year after year with impunity and none of the consequence they themselves insisted on when they conceived it. BBC's interview of a Turkish leader in Germany yesterday was handled tactfully but left no doubt that the Turkish minority is strongly discriminated against and is still considered by many Germans to be an alien presence. Part of what President Obama called Europe's ticking demographic time bomb.

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  • 7. At 4:07pm on 28 Sep 2009, Brian80 wrote:

    The results of the German elections are bad news for the UK. The German Free Democrats are stronger than ever before, which will result in the most neoliberal business-friendly government the country ever had. At the same time, we are raising our taxes. As a result, many (overseas) investments will now go to them, at the expense of British jobs.

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  • 8. At 4:52pm on 28 Sep 2009, newseagle wrote:

    Ms Merkel handled the economic crises the right way. She refused to extend bale outs and hand outs despite all the contrary actions taken by her western allies. She is the strongest leader in the western hemisphere and compared to the mess that we've created here in the USA her determination to stop the train wreck of economic destruction in it's tracks is truly the most significant action taken by any world leader. Had her spineless counter parts stood tall in the saddle as she has, the western economies as as whole would be in better shape today as they currently find themselves.
    Congratulations to the German people and to common sense.

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  • 9. At 5:19pm on 28 Sep 2009, jon_toronto wrote:

    Prima facie, it's a peculiar coalition. The FDP only used about four or five slogans during their campaign, all of which were about low taxes except one about civil liberties. In contrast, history shows us that the CDU/CSU has nothing to do with low taxes and has a worse record on civil liberties than any of the other parties.

    However, I suppose this kind of alliance is common elsewhere: smarmy management consultants in bed with religious bigots. The Tory party in the UK is made of the same two elements.

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  • 10. At 5:43pm on 28 Sep 2009, Ricter wrote:

    Germany should beware of shifting too far to the right when it comes to de-regulation and lower taxes. Unless they want to emulate the USA during the Bush Administration.

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  • 11. At 6:15pm on 28 Sep 2009, Philly-Mom wrote:

    #10 GP writes:
    Germany should beware of shifting too far to the right when it comes to de-regulation and lower taxes. Unless they want to emulate the USA during the Bush Administration.
    - - - -

    Agreed.
    On one hand, these facilitate economic growth -- but economic freedoms given are not easily withdrawn. Give a businessman an inch and they'll take a mile...

    But - to date, Merkel seems pretty balanced. She seems more concerned about doing what works than aligning undying loyalty to a given structure. This is good. We'll just to wait & find out how this particular shoe fits.

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  • 12. At 6:21pm on 28 Sep 2009, frenchderek wrote:

    "Angela Merkel as Mrs Thatcher" is a British newspaper myth.

    What you didn't mention, Gavin, is the Opel issue. My guess is that Ms Merkel rather hopes the EU will reign in on her "save German jobs" pre-requisite, on the understanding that the deal will then go through (German funding included).

    Tax-cuts are needed - and they will come, but later rather than sooner.

    As for which Ms Merkel will we see. From an economic point of view I would expect the liberal socialism to continue.

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  • 13. At 7:18pm on 28 Sep 2009, powermeerkat wrote:

    7. At 4:07pm on 28 Sep 2009, Brian80 wrote:
    The results of the German elections are bad news for the UK. The German Free Democrats are stronger than ever before, which will result in the most neoliberal business-friendly government the country ever had. At the same time, we are raising our taxes. As a result, many (overseas) investments will now go to them, at the expense of British jobs.





    But there's a simple solution. Elect a British government which pro-business and for lower taxes.

    It shouldn't be too difficult now, should it?

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  • 14. At 7:42pm on 28 Sep 2009, teharatats wrote:

    Good Grief, what BS! Merkel is quite the politico (as many others are) making an appearance at G20 - now credibly able to co-opt liberal opposition's major issue - "re-regulation:" - it's all hot air - G20 is utterly non-binding fluff - WTO BINDING regulations prohibit more regulation and enact more DEREGULATION!
    CHANGE WTO MERKEL and get real!

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  • 15. At 9:37pm on 28 Sep 2009, JM wrote:

    @ powermeerkat

    Plz don´t forget one factor-Germany is sufferung from a "brain drain"!

    Why highly qualified people can´t get a job and when they do like doctors they earn more money in the UK,denmark hell many go to spain!

    The wages in some industries have got worse and worse andcoupes with low taxes on wealth but very high taxes/insurance contributions(which every WORKER must poay-the rich don´t!)

    About 145,000 professionals leave germany EVERY YEAR and it will be even more!

    I am re-training as an IT specialist I know that everywhere else(like the UK ,Holland)i can earn MORE than here in germany and pay LESS taxes too..

    Deregulation has happend under the SPD enough with tax presents for the rich -Thats why Merkel won not because she´s good-In her election campaign she said NOTHING on what the CDU is planning-Many germans are scared stiff -escpecially the poor paid and the unemployed!

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  • 16. At 10:48pm on 28 Sep 2009, Krzysztof Wasilewski wrote:

    She is not an enigma, she's a pragmatist.

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  • 17. At 11:21pm on 28 Sep 2009, Stesilaus wrote:

    I find Angela Merkel quite likable for many reasons, not the least of which is her background in physics.

    But I also find some of her foreign policy stances deeply troubling: her verbal support for the invasion of Iraq, her utter obsequiousness before the Israeli Knesset and, most recently, her apparent eagerness to see Germany join the march to war with Iran.

    Perhaps Ms Merkel envies the lucrative Iraq reconstruction contracts the Poles received for materially supporting the Iraq invasion, or the arms manufacturing deals the Danes received for their support? Perhaps she's decided that when the next Shah of Iran cuts the oil-industry pie, Germany should receive a nice big, meaty slice?

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  • 18. At 00:51am on 29 Sep 2009, em614 wrote:

    Dublin_Dilettante: stuff like that (the Greens also saw an increase in votes, and there could easily be a SPD-Green-Linke coalition), and the upbeat tone of the end of the article, are typical of the BBC's cushiness with the right, neoliberalism, and the EU.

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  • 19. At 01:49am on 29 Sep 2009, SamsonShawel wrote:

    God be with Right Honorable Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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  • 20. At 02:20am on 29 Sep 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    So is Angela Merckel a later day "Enigma Machine?" Hardly. No mystery here. When Angela Merkel looks for a vision for the leadership of Germany, she is looking in the mirror. She is about the lust for power pure and simple. She's not a pragmatist but an opportunist. She has far less in common with Margaret Thatcher than she does with Hillary Clinton. Watching her will be like seeing what the US avoided by electing President Obama instead. I say we in America did far better, Obama's many obvious shortcomings not withstanding. If nothing else, he's much smarter than any of the other leaders on either side of the pond. Doesn't say much for everyone else does it?

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  • 21. At 04:38am on 29 Sep 2009, SauerkrautYankee wrote:

    Remember Germany is the only country that after reunification was able to incorporate 33% more people and honor the former eastern communist worthless currency and pension system on a 1 to 1 basis with the West. If people would bother to study her history http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Merkel, she managed many remarkable things - growing up in communist East Germany she was able to under her own merits excel in the male dominated political arena against seasoned veterans.

    She was born into a poor family - her father a preacher that left the West for the East while the communists still ruled in order to preach in bombed out Dresden, and I think much of her father`s idealism rubbed off on her, and she was able to raise herself up under her own initiative.

    Somehow she has been able to survive and prosper in the most extreme circumstances. Based on her life and personal performance, I have faith she will manage to make the necessary changes in German society in this difficult time.

    The most educated minds in the USA have no idea if what they are doing will work, but they always come to Germany, and somehow big brother USA seems to need its little cousin.

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  • 22. At 08:09am on 29 Sep 2009, mikewarsaw wrote:

    From the perspective of Warsaw, Poland Angela Merkel's victory and her return to the traditional alliance with the FDP is a very positive situation. The SDP was/is always "soft" on Moscow. Merkel's family background and personal experience of communist rule innoculate her against going soft on the re-packaged communists within Germany (Die Linke) and their political mentors and colleagues to the east of the European Union.
    She is seen as a deeply pragmatic political leader, not tied to a particular ideology like Bush was and severely critical of both extremes, Left and Right. She is clearly committed to the "social market" economy that Germany has so successfully implemented over the past 60 years, making it the leading economy in the EU and one of the world's largest, and to European integration as "united we stand, divided we fall". It should be remembered that Germany was the first country in Europe to introduce national public pension and health systems (back in the 19th century!) and as such provide a role model for many european countries. The wild, uncontrolled and rabidly excessive capitalism as seen in the USA with 50 million US citizens without guaranteed health care side by side with the gross excesses of Wall Street is completely unacceptable both in Germany and across the European Union.

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  • 23. At 08:16am on 29 Sep 2009, Seraphim wrote:

    "Germany and France for example were able to nullify the Growth and Stability pact in Maastrict when they were the only ones violating it and they did year after year with impunity and none of the consequence they themselves insisted on when they conceived it."

    erm sorry but that is just wrong. We had to pay a fee for violating it and on the other side the contract doesn't say that penalties always have to consist of money. (e.g. in a crisis like this I doubt many countries will really have to pay huge sums for violating that pact) Well of course you don't care what is right and what is wrong as long as you can bash Europe do you? ;-)

    "She is the strongest leader in the western hemisphere..."

    That may only appear to you because the grand coalition just didn't answer any questions in which they disagreed. They didn't find a clear position to Turkey joining the EU, to the middle east or to Iran. The hard decisions are all still open. Don't get me wrong I think she is a good chancellor and if the election had been to vote directly she wold get my vote, but I think it is not as shiny as you perceive it.

    The entire election campaign was just a big "vote for me because I am what I am". On the downside we don't really know what is going to happen now but on the upside at least we haven't been told all the promises that go along with other elections just to be broken right away afterwards. Still I don't know if I want elections in the future to be only about the likeability.

    And she is really pro invasion of Iran and pro invasion of Iraq? O.o
    Do you happen to have any sources for that?

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  • 24. At 09:54am on 29 Sep 2009, Freeman wrote:

    Thatcher did not start out in power as the Iron Lady, so we could see Angela Merkel go the same way. I doubt it though as Germany is still in excellent shape despite the world's problems. Unless another Scargill and his Communists appear from Die Linke then I would guess she will remain in the centre area.

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  • 25. At 11:38am on 29 Sep 2009, mikewarsaw wrote:

    Saying Angela Merkel is a copy of Margaret Thatcher shows a misunderstanding of modern German political leaders. I voted for Thatcher back in 1979 after the "winter of discontent" when there were continuous strikes across the UK public sector services (I couldn't bury my mother for a month after she died because the gravediggers were on strike!).
    Angela Merkel is a reasonable, level headed pragmatist in the best tradition of modern German political leaders with the added benefit of having personally experienced life under a communist regime. She is NOT a hard right ideologue as Thatcher was. As such, therefore, Merkel is a fine democratic choice to lead a modern Germany, fully integrated within the European Union and in NATO, and in a coalition with the liberal FDP and smaller right wing CSU from Bavaria.
    I look forward to her providing the level-headed leadership that the 21st century European Union needs.

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  • 26. At 1:16pm on 29 Sep 2009, john-In-Dublin wrote:

    # 4 Dublin_Dilettante wrote:

    "What shines through this article, yet again, is the BBC's wilful refusal to acknowledge that the failure of former social democratic parties like the SDP does not constitute a failure of the "left." What it really indicates is the failure of those Blairite parties, now completely given over to neoliberalism, to offer a left alternative. The (somewhat) genuine left alternative, Die Linke, was enormously successful."

    From the Guardian - "the Linke (Left) party took 12.1%, an increase of 3.4 points."

    A big percentage increase perhaps - but is 12% really "enormously successful"?

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  • 27. At 02:36am on 30 Sep 2009, EUprisoner209456731 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 28. At 02:48am on 30 Sep 2009, EUprisoner209456731 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 29. At 08:27am on 30 Sep 2009, phoenix wrote:

    "A day will come when you all, nations of this continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will bind yourselves tightly in a new, higher unity - the brotherhood of Europe"

    Victor Hugo 1849

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  • 30. At 11:13am on 30 Sep 2009, Freeman wrote:

    Poor Gavin. Still not got your blog link yet. Someone has buried you good and proper. Perhaps you will be allowed out after Friday.

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  • 31. At 4:44pm on 30 Sep 2009, RCalvo wrote:

    Dear SuffolkBoy2:

    You are relentlessly off-topic in your posts in this blog. This is boorish, annoying and does not strengthen your cause one little bit. Please follow the House Rules and the basic rules of politeness and civility and make us the favour of staying on topic. I'm sure that in the following days and weeks you'll have more than enough opportunity to rant on the Lisbon Treaty anyway.

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