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2 September 2020

To understand Germany’s successes, we must concentrate less on Angela Merkel

The German model is a package deal, whose transmission to Britain would require a decades-long institutional overhaul. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

Angela Merkel is riding high. Not just in Germany – where she approaches her final year as chancellor with a 71 per cent approval rating – but internationally, too. Her calm and scientific leadership is widely associated with Germany’s relatively low Covid-19 infection and death rates. The fifth anniversary of her assertion, “Wir schaffen das” (“We’ll manage this”), made at the peak of the refugee crisis, has turned the spotlight on the country’s better-than-expected progress towards integrating the 1.2 million migrants who entered Germany in 2015 and 2016. And in Britain a new book, Why The Germans Do It Better by John Kampfner, offers a nuanced but compelling account of the manifold virtues – a serious political system, successful export industries, social cohesion – of Merkel’s Germany.

A former editor of the New Statesman who knows the country well, Kampfner marshals a convincing argument that “other countries would be foolish to ignore Germany’s emotional maturity and solidity”. It is hard to read those terms – maturity and solidity – and not automatically think of the chancellor and the obvious contrast between her and the cynical circus acts leading Britain and the US. She is the anti-Johnson, the anti-Trump, and thus inspires a particular sort of fascination in observers in those countries.

It is a strength of Kampfner’s book that it resists over-Merkelising its story of today’s Germany, instead mining deeper social, cultural and political seams. Almost 15 years into her chancellorship, Merkel is familiar. She is distinctive. Many abroad have opinions about her, positive and negative. And so it is always tempting to describe the country’s strengths and weaknesses with reference to her character and leadership. That so many do helps to explain why Germany remains poorly understood overseas, particularly in precisely the English-speaking countries that are so intrigued by Merkel.

Three explanations for this stand out. The first is that Merkel belongs firmly within a Christian democrat tradition that is underdeveloped in Britain and the US. Its Christian social ethics, its emphasis on stability and consensus, its peculiar synthesis of liberalism and conservatism, render it similar to but also clearly distinct from those countries’ leading political traditions. The result is a long history of confusion about Merkel’s politics, leading to her being characterised variously – approvingly and critically – as a German Thatcher, a nationalist, a radical, a conservative and a die-hard liberal. She is none of those things; she’s a Christian democrat, and if you do not understand Christian democracy you will struggle to understand today’s Germany through the prism of her chancellorship.

The second reason is that viewing the Merkel era in isolation from the broader sweep of history obscures important shifts and notes of continuity that define the country she leads. The period from reunification in 1990 to Merkel’s arrival in the chancellery in 2005 was turbulent and transformative, marked by fraught debates about Germany’s society, economy and role in the world. The red-green governments of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder had launched the country’s first post-1945 foreign military mission, overhauled its ethnically restrictive naturalisation laws, begun an overhaul of conservative family policies and introduced divisive measures to cut unemployment.

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Merkel’s historical role, in which she has acquitted herself well, has been to strike a balance between progress and reassurance in bedding in many of those changes. Her refugee gambit, for example, belongs to a long-term story of Germany’s evolution into a “migration country”.

The third reason is that to focus on Merkel is to attribute too much of Germany’s social, economic and political architecture to decisions that she has made. Even setting aside the fact that the German chancellor lacks the centralised, unilateral power of a majority-wielding British prime minister, let alone a French president, it is truer to say that Merkel’s chancellorship is a product of that architecture than vice versa.

Germany’s strengths are not just deep-rooted but mutually reinforcing. Consensus-based politics lends itself to long-termism in government and industry. That in turn supports investment in applied research and vocational training, which strengthen and benefit from workplace co-determination, which is linked to the country’s dense networks of civic organisations, and so forth. The relative successes of “Wir schaffen das” and of Germany’s pandemic response are primarily tales not of Merkel deftly pulling levers in the chancellery but of the complementary strengths of the German social, political and economic system. (The disadvantages of that system, from over-cosy corporatist practices to the country’s underdeveloped services and digital industries, are likewise inextricable from the whole.)

That final reason poses a particular challenge for those, like me, who agree with Kampfner’s argument that there is much to envy about Germany. Because the lesson would be much simpler were that story mostly one of Merkel’s leadership: ditch the clowns and elect a serious leader, and we too can proceed through the shopping list of German successes in our own country. But to look beyond Merkel is to recognise that the mature German model is a package deal whose transmission to, say, Britain would require a decades-long project of institutional overhaul. And that is without getting into its culturally rooted foundations.

It is easy to look across at Germany’s wry, sensible and yet, to many English speakers, unfathomable chancellor and ask: why can’t we be more like them? The complicated answer begins with recognising that “they” are far more than just Merkel. 

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