Angela Merkel faces her greatest challenge

A political crisis severely tests the German Chancellor's abilities.

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“Gradually, her long-term vision gave way to her short-term memory. She focused only on the here and now. But at the end that didn’t work”. These lines are a (rough) translation from Die Kanzerlin – Eine Fiktion, a novel about the Chancellor Angela Merkel by the German writer Konstantin Richter.

Facing her perhaps most difficult crisis ever – there is something prophetic about the way the author described the final days in the reign of a female leader on a West European country. 

Needless to say, Richter’s book is fictional. The author takes liberties and embellishes facts, as you can when you are writing fiction. And yet, the main character is so unmistakably modelled on Angela Dorothea Merkel.

Angela Merkel is a crisis manager. A woman who built her reputation on solving intractable problems ranging from the financial collapse in 2008, through several rounds of restructuring of the Greek economy and onto the refugee crisis in 2016. Throughout, her demise has been predicted. And every time she has in Houdini-like fashion wriggled herself out of the entanglement and emerged stronger.

But this time it may be different. Talks between Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and other mainstream political parties have broken down, leaving Germany in political deadlock. New elections may be on the horizon. Merkel is under pressure. And forming a government is about tactics and politics, and not about policy details.

Merkel – a woman with a doctorate in quantum physics and fluent Russian – has a formidable intellect and a talent for understanding intricate details. This skill served her well as a policy-manager and dealmaker in matters that required specialist knowledge. Throughout every crisis she has read up on the subject and become an expert on finances, debt-restructuring, refugee conventions, or whatever issue that faced her.

But Merkel has never been a tactician. True, she can be as Machiavellian as her colleagues and peers. But the political game is not her forte.

She likes to see herself as a politician who carefully gathers the facts and then moves at the last minute. She tells the story of how, aged about 10, she spent a quarter of an hour on the diving board at a swimming lesson and only jumped when the bell rang and she had analysed all the angles. The Germans even invented the word “to Merkel” (Merkeln) to describe this quality in their leader.

These qualities were useful when she was dealing with the Greeks, with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine and in her endless battles with colleagues in the European Council.

But politics is different from policy. As in Richter’s novel, the art of striking a tactical deal and thinking strategically is very different from reaching an agreement on substance.

With the collapse in the negotiations over a new coalition, Angela Merkel is weakened. Furthermore, she no longer calls the shots. It is not for her to decide if new elections should be called. That is the prerogative of President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The failure to form a government is Angela Merkel’s biggest crisis so far. And it is not one she is qualified to deal with.

The only positive news for her is that no one is ready to challenge her or take over as leader of the Christian Democratic Union. The latter may prolong her tenure as Chancellor. But her survival will – for once – owe more to good fortune than to careful deliberation.

Matthew Qvortrup’s book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader is published by Duckworth.