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7 December 2021

Principled, powerful and precise – Angela Merkel is everything Boris Johnson could never be

It’s impossible to imagine Merkel indulging in puerile slanging matches with the French, seeking to curb the judiciary, or breaking her own Covid rules.

By Martin Fletcher

Goodbye, Angela Merkel – and if you’re a Telegraph leader writer, good riddance.  

As the German chancellor prepares to step down after 16 years in power on Wednesday (8 December), the Daily Telegraph last week declared: “If longevity is a measure of success then she can be well satisfied. Whether history will look benignly upon her achievements is another matter entirely.”

The Sunday Telegraph, noting that her departure “has been an occasion for euro-centrists to wax lyrical about her supposedly triumphant reign”, accused her of a “litany of unforced errors and breathtaking complacency”.

For my part, I would accuse the two Telegraph titles of breathtaking double standards. How they can possibly be so damning of Merkel having served as the champion and mouthpiece of Boris Johnson these past five years is beyond me.

[See also: From Germany, the UK appears ever more dysfunctional and absurd]

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While Merkel has, for the most part, delivered stability and prosperity, and largely completed Germany’s transformation from pariah state to the economic and moral leader of Europe, Johnson has wrecked Britain’s social cohesion, seriously weakened its economy and left a once-great country sidelined on the edge of Europe with its global stature greatly diminished.

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Merkel has been a bulwark against the world’s slide towards authoritarianism, populism and disorder, towards aggressive nationalism, xenophobia and disinformation – a slide to which our own Prime Minister has lamentably contributed.

She has made mistakes, some serious. It would be surprising if she hadn’t. She was too tough on Greece following the financial crash of 2008. Abandoning nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster has left Germany too reliant on fossil fuels. She should have cancelled the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. She paid too little attention to the old East Germany, and fuelled the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, by admitting a million refugees in 2015. She might have prevented Brexit had she offered more concessions to David Cameron.

But she has had her triumphs too. Admitting those million refugees, many from countries devastated by the West’s unfinished wars or sheer indifference, was an act of supreme moral courage that shames our government’s demonisation of the relative trickle attempting to cross the Channel. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for,” she declared in 2015.

She was harsh on Greece but she did, belatedly, orchestrate the EU’s bailouts of that country. Indeed, many economists would argue that she saved the euro by refusing to expel Greece from the eurozone. 

Unlike Johnson, Merkel refused to kowtow to President Donald Trump. Though sometimes accused of putting trade with Russia and China ahead of human rights, she would not be bullied by Putin and organised robust EU sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea. A scientist by training, she has steered Germany through the Covid pandemic with far less loss of life, and far less economic damage, than her British counterpart. 

Merkel’s core beliefs derived from the collective guilt most Germans felt for the atrocities of the Second World War, and from spending the first 35 years of her life in the police state that was East Germany. 

Consequently, as chancellor she has sought to strengthen both the EU, as an alliance of peaceful nations with shared democratic values, and the rules-based international order of which the EU is an integral part. She has vigorously defended the freedoms of movement and expression that she never enjoyed in the former German Democratic Republic. She has been acutely aware of democracy’s fragility, warning in a 2019 Harvard speech that “our individual liberties are not givens. Neither is peace, and neither is prosperity.”

By contrast, Johnson’s core beliefs remain a mystery. He has sought to undermine the EU for reasons of political expediency, not conviction, and voiced little objection to Trump’s subversion of democracy in the US.

In style, too, Merkel could not have been more different from Johnson. “I have the following problems,” she told Tony Blair in 2005. “I am a woman, I have no charisma, and I’m not good at communicating.” To which she might have added that she was also an Ossi (East German). 

She compensated by working relentlessly, preparing meticulously and mastering briefs (she even watched a season of The Apprentice to prepare for her first meeting with Trump). She was organised, methodical and disciplined. Again, her scientific background led her to base decisions on facts and evidence, not impulse or emotion. She sought consensus and collaboration wherever possible. “There is strength in calm,” she liked to say.  

Merkel could be ruthless – famously securing the chancellorship by shafting her mentor, Helmut Kohl. She paid close attention to opinion polls and focus groups. But in an age of nationalist showmen, she had scarcely a populist bone in her body. 

Intensely private, she seldom engaged in self-promoting theatrics or gimmicky photo ops. She spurned social media. She never craved affection. She did not court headlines – “What matters is what will be achieved in two years, not what we read in the papers tomorrow,” she once said. She distrusted soaring rhetoric and politicians who overpromise.  

“In her experience, language cannot be trusted. Words are weapons to be deployed cautiously. Merkel prefers being the uninspiring but wise custodian of the liberal West to playing with the fire of demagogy,” Kati Marton writes in The Chancellor, a new biography of a leader who once compared herself to an energy-saving lamp.

[See also: The Fateful Chancellor: What the end of the Merkel era means for the world]

It is simply impossible to imagine Merkel engaging in divisive culture wars, indulging in puerile slanging matches with the French, reneging on international treaties, acting unlawfully, seeking to curb the judiciary, giving government contracts to cronies or accepting dubious donations. She wouldn’t dream of breaking her own Covid rules. She would never brag of Germany’s “world-beating” achievements, though she did once concede – when asked what she liked about her country – that it has “nice draught-proof windows”.

Her personal life was beyond reproach. Throughout her chancellorship she and her husband, Joachim Sauer, lived in a rented flat in a nondescript four-storey apartment block in east Berlin, and shopped in the local supermarket. For weekends, the couple owned a remarkably unpretentious little house in the village of Hohenwalde, 80 kilometres east of Berlin. At no point was her chancellorship tainted by the slightest hint of scandal. 

Merkel has earned the sort of trust, respect and authority, at home and abroad, that our own clown of a Prime Minister can only dream of. Her departure will render the world less safe and stable, and I suspect her low-key but serious, resolute, ego-free leadership will be greatly missed.  

The Telegraph’s leader writers, afflicted as they are by EU-derangement syndrome, might also reflect on the fact that Merkel leaves office with 71 per cent of Germans satisfied with her performance, and 29 per cent not. Johnson’s approval rating in November stood at -20.

[See also: Merkel bows out but don’t expect drastic change in Germany]

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