Will the real Angela Merkel please stand up? After reading Stefan Kornelius’s official biography the German Chancellor remains a mystery
I’ve always been intrigued by Angela Merkel. Her success has been stunning, but I could never quite work out what made her tick, other than that we, women of a similar age, started life looking at the world from different sides of the Iron Curtain.
Constantly underestimated, she has frequently proved her critics wrong. An authorised biography, written by a journalist who is said to know her, with an additional chapter written for the English language edition should have been a joy to read. Yet I found the book irritating and frustrating. We learn about her views on the United States, Israel and Europe, but as for domestic policy, she remains undefined. There is predictability in her decision-making processes, but not in the outcome. Her leitmotif is said to be the defence of freedom.
We know what she does, but what is she thinking? It’s suggested that those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know. Even one of her closest political allies, Wolfgang Schäuble, didn’t find out that she’d married her long-time partner Thomas Sauer until after the event. Whether it’s her flat in Berlin — she doesn’t live at the Chancellery — or her weekend cottage, people can come to the door, but they don’t go in. A handful of women supports her, but even the most intimate and long-standing friend is still addressed by the formal “Sie” rather than the informal “Du“.
Kornelius never refers to personal conversations or meetings and seems to rely on third-party sources. Strange, given that the book claims to be the authorised biography; authorised by whom, one wonders?
The narrative is clear: Merkel good, others bad. Putin presents her with a puppy even though he knows that she’s afraid of dogs. Sarkozy rearranges the furniture and makes her wait, but in the end he blinks first. She detests Berlusconi. Obama is a cold fish, but she did get on with George W. Bush and Tony Blair was helpful to her. The German abstention over Libya was a mistake, but not really her fault. Others leak, brief the press, jump the gun — but Angela keeps her cool. Even when mistakes are admitted, no judgements are made.
In 2010 she went to Bruges to address the new intake of students at the College of Europe. A book for the English market should have acknowledged, at least in passing, the significance of women prime ministers giving speeches in Bruges on the subject of Europe. But let that pass. Merkel writes in the students’ yearbook, “The member states are constituent parts of the European Union, not its opponents.” In her speech she talks about the arrogance of the Brussels elite based on the “community method”. This should be music to the ears of many a Brit, but read on and you discover a speech to the Bundestag in which she spells out her vision of Europe. The Commission should be set up as a form of European government, controlled by a strong parliament — which would be the European parliament. The Council should become something like a second chamber composed of heads of government. To many in the UK this would sound much like the superstate we don’t want. For Merkel, modern Germany has been shaped by the United States and the experience of the Holocaust and the EU is the framework within which the country exists.
After the financial crisis she outlined her vision of the future structure of Europe. Four pillars: a common policy for the financial markets, a common fiscal policy, a common economic policy and more democratic control.
The section on the financial crisis is well written but suffers from its suggestion that the problem has been sorted thanks to Merkel’s caution and insistence on addressing the fundamental problems. The chapter finishes with Greece and makes no mention of subsequent events in Cyprus.
Kornelius is clearly not impressed by the British. He ridicules No 10 for having a toilet brush and bottle of disinfectant in the visitors’ loo. The chapter in the English edition on “The British Problem” concludes: “And so in Berlin there is always a note of sympathy in people’s voices when they talk of Great Britain and its romantic view of a world that has long since changed.”
I left Germany when I was 18 and arrived in the UK at the height of Edward Heath’s three-day week. I have watched the ups and downs of Anglo-German relations over the years. Never have we been farther apart while thinking we have a common understanding. We hear but we don’t listen. This book is an illustration of the problems rather than a means of overcoming it. That’s a pity.