Why Angie ain’t no Maggie

Forbes magazine recently proclaimed Angela Merkel to be the most powerful woman in the world. Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent for British daily The Times, explains why he finds it a strange choice.

Why Angie ain't no Maggie
Photo: DPA

What kind of power does Chancellor Angela Merkel actually wield? There is an illusion abroad that Merkel is up there with the heavy-hitters because of her easy manner with the likes of George Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin – all difficult men with dysfunctional relationships to power.

Her technique – to treat the men as if she were their tomboy sister – creates a public illusion that she is in control, that she has mastered the man’s power game. You can certainly quibble with the Forbes list. Condoleezza Rice was a distant seventh. Yet Rice is still the woman who will advise the American president on whether to push the button that launches a missile attack on Iran.

When Merkel presses a button the only thing that happens is that her neutered courtiers stand to attention. And now the Forbes list has become outdated only days after being published. If John McCain becomes US president in November, and if he slips in the shower, a 44-year-old moose-hunting former beauty queen named Sarah Palin gets to run the country. Angie can’t top that.

Perhaps the point of making Angela Merkel world champion is to honour her skill in castrating male rivals – at least that’s how it started out. Margaret Thatcher, who still ranks as the most successful female leader, kept women out of her cabinet, preferring men that she could dominate.

Angela Merkel has been more subtle. She has slowly but surely chipped away at the authority of her male critics and rivals. The glass ceiling was supposed to be broken not by brutal force but by feminine stealth.

She has, quite honestly, not done a great deal while in power. But she has at least managed to give the impression of dynamic leadership. Perhaps that is what impressed the Forbes judges two years ago when she was first declared to be the most powerful woman on the globe. And perhaps they have fallen into a deep hibernation since then. Because Angela Merkel’s power, never great, is beginning to crumble.

The Merkel Illusion has two components. The first – that she has huge talents as an international stateswoman – is based on the vacuum of power that opened up briefly in Europe and the world in 2006. Chirac, a lame duck. Blair and Bush, damaged by an unsuccessful war, both already thinking more in terms of their historical legacy than practical problem-solving. Russia, inward-looking as it tried to puzzle out what would happen after the Putin presidency.

Who else but Merkel could get the world talking again? Times have changed and to many outsiders, Merkel looks tired and often irrelevant. The United States is still playing only a marginal role in world affairs, but for the most part the vacuum has been filled. Sarkozy has taken over from Blair the role as the most exhibitionistic leader in Europe. Russia has solved its succession crisis by not really having one and is more assertive than ever.

And Merkel’s confidence on the world stage has been sapped by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s shadow policy-making on China and Russia. Two years ago the world would have hailed the bravery of a German chancellor meeting up with the Dalai Lama and risking the anger of Beijing. Now that rendezvous just looks silly, pointless self-publicity – and there is a German foreign minister who is openly saying as much. What kind of power is that? Merkel cannot present herself as the champion of German interests because there is no consensus about what those interests are.

And, of course, at home too Merkel is beginning to look like a scout leader who lost her map. There is no such thing as Merkonomics. Only the good luck of a global economic recovery, the inheritance of Schröder’s reforms that began to mature under her stewardship, and the dubious advantages of a radical increase in value added tax. All that has helped her balance the budget.

But Merkel never even attempted to step in the shoes of the Iron Lady. Her lack of reforming zeal destroys her credibility as a future Thatcherite chancellor. Who believes any more that Merkel will ever be a tax-cutting leader? Naturally, her junior coalition partners the Social Democrats are clipping her wings. But mainly her problem is that she has let herself become a prisoner of the industrial lobbies – the big car lobby that is sabotaging her climate change plans, the nuclear lobby, pharmaceutical lobby – and even the tobacco peddlers thwarting a total smoking ban.

Does she have the power to bring about real change in Germany? Not any more. Angie’s moment has passed. Her personal popularity is still high – perhaps that is what dazzled Forbes – but so is that of Queen Elizabeth. And they seem to be fulfilling similar functions: visiting kindergartens, making dinner speeches and attempting to stay out of dirty day to day politics. Thank God, Queen Angela does not have a son called Charles.

For more Roger Boyes, check out his website here.


Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
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‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.