Merkel tried recently to once again speak with completely normal people. Her series “Talking with the Chancellor” focused on families in the pandemic. Fourteen mothers and fathers were invited to join her for a video conference, a carefully chosen cast of characters including single parents, those with many children and people who had immigrated to Germany – all friendly and eloquent.
It was an attempt to shed the image of a heartless pandemic hardliner that some have fashioned for Merkel – and one that bothers her. “I will not accept accusations that I torment children,” she retorted harshly to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Governor Manuela Schwesig during one round of negotiations.
But the online town meeting served to once again show that Merkel’s strengths do not lie in offering comfort and solace. For one-and-a-half hours, she listened to the problems the parents were facing, to the financial tribulations of single parents and to the feeling shared by parents everywhere of having to choose between spending their time with their children or with their jobs. Then she said things like:
“I can’t really give you a good answer.”
“It of course pains me when I see your unhappiness.”
“I really did want something different for Germany.”
“I can only repeat what we have said: The first step should be reopening the schools.”
The most powerful woman in Germany looked extremely powerless.
When and how the schools in Germany will reopen was also a focus of the meeting of state governors with the chancellor on Wednesday. And Merkel didn’t even try to negotiate. Participants quote her as saying she had been hoping for a consensual agreement on waiting a while before reopening. But unfortunately, she continued, some states had reached “different conclusions.” The chancellor said she would not question the decisions of the states in public. But in the video conference on Wednesday, she made clear: “This is not my preferred course of action.”
More cautious governors, such as Winfried Kretschmann from Baden-Württemberg, who had been hoping for support from the chancellor, reacted with pique: “Angela, I am not happy about your change of course.”
Leaving decisions of nationwide importance to others is also not something Merkel is used to. The national government was able to address previous crises on its own. How to address the Ukraine conflict or what measures should be relied on to save the euro are not issues in which state governments have a say. Governors were, of course, heavily involved in the refugee crisis, but the primary focus was on money, and Berlin holds the biggest purse strings. The political course was charted in the Chancellery, in federal parliament and in the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Merkel was the focus of a lot of anger at the time, but at least that anger was triggered by her own policies, her own approach and her own mistakes. Now, she just says that she has no choice but to accept the authority of the German states. The fact that infection numbers exploded in the winter, she says, was a consequence of “our indecisive approach in late summer and fall.” It can be assumed that the chancellor does not believe that her own approach was indecisive.
“We lost control of it in October,” she recently complained in a meeting with leading parliamentary conservatives. Back then, when the state governors were unwilling to accept a hard lockdown, Merkel had Chief of Staff Helge Braun complain openly that the measures agreed to unanimously by the states were insufficient.
Now, she has begun talking about her own impotence. In Germany’s federalist system, she says, the chancellor doesn’t have a veto like in the EU. Legally, though, she could push through a national law to impose a lockdown, and even to close the schools. But such a forceful approach is not Merkel’s style. She would rather run the risk of the states making what she believes to be erroneous decisions, before then demonstratively rejecting responsibility for those decisions.
“I need a break, I need some fresh air,” Merkel allegedly said abruptly during one of the meetings with state governors, according to a meeting participant, who added that the chancellor has sometimes become so agitated with discussions that she’ll suddenly bow out.
But did Merkel really say such a thing? “Nonsense,” says another participant in the meeting. Yes, the chancellor needs a break every now and then. But it’s not like she stares at the wall or goes out to the balcony for a cigarette. Instead, she continues negotiating with a smaller group.
Since video conferencing has taken over the political world, a lot of quotes, half-sentences and outbursts find their way into the public eye on Twitter and on news websites, including Spiegel.de. Supporters of Merkel complain that they aren’t always real, or are incomplete, free of context and inaccurate. Confidants of the chancellor say that the constant leaks and misunderstandings annoy her greatly.
She doesn’t often complain vocally, as she did during a meeting with conservative domestic policymakers – at a time when news was making the rounds that she had allegedly demanded the lockdown be continued until Easter. Instead, she prefers to rely on sarcasm, say those close to her, starting meetings with bon mots such as: We don’t really need to meet. “Everything is in Bild anyway” – a reference to Germany’s largest tabloid newspaper. This quote, too, of course, is the result of a leak.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there are no safe rooms any longer for confidential political discussions. It makes life easier for journalists, but for politicians, it means they have to weigh each word with extreme care, as if they were speaking on camera. And for a chancellor who has been in office for 15 years and hasn’t always demonstrated expert communications skills, it must be unbearable.
Merkel has a bit more than seven months until the fall general election, time that will be almost entirely focused on the battle against the coronavirus. Despite the numerous other issues on which she has not managed to find closure. There is still no high-speed internet in rural areas, no real answer to the climate disaster, and no strategy for integrating refugees into German society. There is no answer to prevent Germany’s economy from being swallowed up by China. But none of those issues are about life and death.
“Merkel knows that the history books are currently being rewritten,” says one state governor. And her legacy will depend a great deal on whether she will be successful in warding off the virus to the degree possible, vaccinating the population, protecting the elderly and supporting the economy. Merkel herself, say confidants, believes that there is still an opportunity to do all of that. But it’s not a slam dunk.
“Sometimes, Merkel sounds really dark,” says the governor. “She’ll tell us: Soon, I won’t be responsible anymore. Then it will be up to you to protect our prosperity.”
In her most recent speech in parliament, Merkel promised to fulfill her mandate “until the very last day of my tenure to defeat this pandemic.” And: “Ultimately, we could succeed in leading our country into better times.”
We could succeed.
She used to be known for a more confident pronouncement: We can do this.