Will Europe miss Merkel?

Many politicians are 'show ponies', but Germany's long-time leader is a true work horse

“Tea,” a German friend said. “She loves English tea.” She, in this case, was Angela Merkel. After considerable persistence I had finally secured a rare interview with the German chancellor. Another friend, who worked for Mrs Merkel, had warned me she did not generally give interviews to foreign broadcasters. But I had a plan.

I had been fascinated by Mrs Merkel for years as the most important political leader in Europe, the one whose decisions in the 2008 financial crisis and the immigration crisis would decide the future of a continent. Would the EU survive rows over the euro? Greek protesters had compared Mrs Merkel’s austerity decisions to being occupied by the Nazis. Would Germany want to bail out the Greek and Italian economies that were so weak that some Germans said they should not have been allowed to join the common currency in the first place?

My own friends and family in Germany – Hamburg, Berlin, Freiburg, Munich – had mixed views on politics but they all respected the Chancellor sometimes referred to as “Mutti", or mummy.

Driving in a suburb in the old west Berlin, a German doctor friend slowed his car and pointed to apartment buildings in a pleasant but ordinary suburb. “The Merkels live there,” he said. It was an unremarkable middle-class life. They lived like – well, like normal people. "Frau Merkel" famously took pride in making breakfast for her husband every morning. My plan to secure the interview was to use what I knew to be at the core of Mrs Merkel’s Weltanschauung, her world view.

She is a Lutheran, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who worked in the old East Germany. From 2008-17 Germany celebrated 500 years of the “Luther Decade”, the 10 years from 1508-17 when Martin Luther went from being a sceptical Catholic monk to a firebrand advocate of Protestantism. Before Luther, Germans could only hear about the Bible through Catholic priests who spoke Latin and who interpreted Christianity through the rulings of the Pope in faraway Rome. The Catholic church also imposed unpopular taxes in Germany to help build Rome’s St Peter’s basilica in 1506.

Luther translated the Bible into German. In an era of great religious ferment as a result of the invention of the printing press, (yes, again in Germany), citizens who could read were suddenly in possession of new information that contradicted teachings of the Catholic church.

Mrs Merkel agreed to the interview on the basis that I would be drawing some parallels between the disruption of Reformation Europe 500 years ago and the disruption across modern Europe in our new 21st-century information age, and she liked the idea. But I also wanted to draw a different parallel with the 21st century, the signs that Germans themselves were tiring of, and might even disrupt, the European project. Some hankered back to the days when they prospered under the old Deutschmark. The common European currency, the euro, meant that the thrifty hard-working German taxpayers were – in the view of many Germans – subsidising the less hard-working southern Europeans who had failed competently to manage their economies.

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As she leaves power after 16 years in charge, her legacy is mixed

And so bearing English tea from Fortnum and Masons, and after brushing up my German so I could ask questions in that language if necessary, we met in the Chancellery, overlooking the wonderful new Reichstag building. Mrs Merkel entered the room with no fuss, no entourage. She accepted the tea and said wryly that the tea they usually served her in the Chancellery was awful. I suspected the German chancellor could have any tea she wanted, but she was charming and the interview went as planned.

She said that she would be happy for me to put questions in English but her translator would turn them into German. All went well until I suggested that German taxpayers in the 21st century resented their money going to wasteful projects in the south of Europe, and that this was just like German taxpayers in Luther’s time resenting their money going to Rome in the 16th century. Mrs Merkel thought for a few moments and was steely in response.

"Very ingenious, but wrong."

The most powerful leader in Europe then articulated her own vision of a Europe at peace, growing together, sharing burdens and responsibilities, and never again fighting one of those terrible conflicts that over the centuries made Europe the bloodiest continent on Earth.

As she leaves power after 16 years in charge of Germany and guiding much of EU policy, it is true that her legacy is mixed.

Her generous acceptance of migrants with the phrase "we can do this", provoked a backlash from the far right. Her CDU party is now not in good shape – although after dominating Germany for a decade and a half that is hardly surprising. And Mrs Merkel’s attitude to Germany’s energy problems – notably the acceptance of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia that bypasses Ukraine – has divided the EU. Ukraine fears this is a major victory for Vladimir Putin and Russia. Europe – and therefore Germany – relies too much on American money and military commitments. Relations within Nato are bedevilled by this. And the authoritarian or extremist streak within the EU remains a problem, especially in respect of Poland and Hungary.

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But the positive legacy of the Merkel years far outweighs the negatives.

The EU has survived both the financial crisis and Brexit. More importantly, member states are using Britain’s catalogue of difficulties to remind their own voters that the EU has brought peace, stability and economic opportunities across a diverse continent. Germany itself has faced up to its 20th-century history in ways that other countries – including the former colonial powers Britain, France and Belgium – have yet to do. And if, as has been suggested, France were to give up its seat on the UN Security Council Permanent Five in favour of an EU seat, German diplomats would play an even bigger role at the top table of international politics.

I visit Germany as often as I can and speak with my German friends and relatives. No one pretends Germany is perfect. But they are proud of their country, well aware of its past, and confident for the future. And they will miss the woman whose unfussy style – famously she always wore very plain businesslike jackets and unremarkable trousers – defined her no-nonsense leadership. Some leaders – Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – are the political equivalent of show ponies. They like to strut and make a fuss, but generally fail to solve problems. Mrs Merkel is more like a work horse. She gets things done.

When I asked one of her German colleagues why in photographs with me, and others, Mrs Merkel often puts her fingers together in a triangle shape, he laughed and said that it was simply because she needed to find a pose that meant she would not fidget on TV or in press photographs. And as I discovered, she speaks perfect English. She told me that as a schoolgirl in the old East Germany she listened to the BBC World Service under the bedclothes. “But your English is perfect, Chancellor,” I said. “So why did you have your translator translating my interview questions into German?” She laughed and said: “Because it gives me a few extra seconds to think of the answers.”

Yes, I’ll miss her, too.

Published: September 26th 2021, 8:18 AM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National