‘When you’re 66’: What’s in store for Merkel in her last year as Chancellor?

Does life start at 66? Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is more in demand than ever, despite being almost at the end of her premiership. In the meantime, the struggle for her succession is well underway.

'When you're 66': What’s in store for Merkel in her last year as Chancellor?
Merkel turns 66. Photo: dpa

There are many nice places where you may choose to celebrate your birthday, but the Europa building in Brussels is probably not one of them. 

But it is fitting to the coronavirus situation that Merkel must spend her birthday, again, in the company of the other EU heads of state. As the Chancellor turns 66, it is well possible that she will be serenaded by her colleagues and that EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen will propose a toast to her. 

READ ALSO: Merkel at 66: 10 photos that tell the story of Germany’s ‘eternal’ chancellor

But in reality, there is hardly any time for it: the greatest crisis of the post-war period does not allow for delays and there is a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction package which needs to be put together.

Just over a year before the end of her Chancellorship, Merkel, as EU Council President, is expected to save Germany and Europe from the consequences of the coronavirus. 

Anyone who is currently watching the world's most powerful woman knows that retiring is out of the question – crisis manager Merkel is in her element.

What will follow the Merkel Era?

Back at home the power struggle to take her place is in full swing. The only thing which is clear so far is that, after the Merkel Era, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will choose a male candidate for chancellor. The Germans will have to prepare for a change of management in the centre of power, and so will Europe and the rest of the world.

The next Chancellor? Merkel with Bavarian PM Markus Söder. Photo: dpa/Pool

In public, Merkel gives the impression of staying out of the new leadership debate and of concentrating on the future of Europe and the struggle against the surge in nationalism which is engulfing it. 

On top of that, there’s the question of how the EU will find its place in the changing power structure between the USA and China. 

Merkel, of course, knows this too and it should give her a boost in the twilight of her premiership. It seems that Merkel is particularly enjoying her appearances with her former critic and current admirer Markus Söder. Does she take satisfaction from the Bavarian Prime Minister’s changed attitude towards her?

READ ALSO: Crown Prince: Was Merkel’s Bavaria visit an endorsement for her successor?

Only last Tuesday Merkel had another appearance with Söder on the scenic Herrenchiemsee Island. Of course, the question on everyone’s lips is whether or not she considers him to be Chancellor-worthy. 

Merkel answered with a short yes, hesitated for a moment – and then mischievously made clear that she intended to answer a completely different question. But then she added: she was particularly reluctant to ask who would be her successor. “That is why I will not comment on anything in any way or in any situation.” 

Does that also apply to the question of who will be her successor in the CDU headquarters?

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had an unsuccessful campaign to be head of the CDU. Photo: dpa

Two years ago, Merkel vacated the CDU's executive chair after 18 years, following internal pressure from the refugee crisis, which was largely her fault. Since then, she has seemed almost free to be rid of the burden of the presidency. But the CDU has plunged into a leadership crisis that is far from over.

Who comes next?

When Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer ran for the CDU leadership in 2018, the Saarlander was considered to be Merkel’s desired successor – also in the Chancellery. But she failed.

Now, the candidates are men with whom the Chancellor has had political run-ins. The election will take place at a party conference in Stuttgart in early December, coronavirus-permitting. 

As in 2018, it seems inevitable for many that Merkel wants to prevent the Chairmanship going to ex-union group leader Friedrich Merz at all costs. And she doesn’t have much affection for the President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, who was long seen as the guarantor for the continuation for the party’s middle-way.

But Laschet distanced himself from Merkel’s cautious approach to the Corona-crisis all too clearly and disloyalty is one of the things which Merkel cannot abide. 

But Söder, Laschet and Merz will be far away as she celebrates her 66th birthday on Friday. She will spend the day as she has many others – at a summit. But this will be the first one since the outbreak of the Corona crisis and it threatens to be an agonising round of negotiations, with one or even two all-night meetings.

 Although many appreciate and admire Merkel for her qualities as a negotiator, some fear her for it.

Merkel needing to take a seat. Photo: dpa

But make no mistake: almost 15 years as Chancellor dealing with crises under high pressure – such as the banking crisis, the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, will have left their mark on Merkel. 

The most noticeable signs of this were her tremouring outbreaks when she had to stand beside her guests for the military honours during their visits. The concern for her health was not out of the headlines until she decided to be seated for these ceremonies.

But because of the virus, Merkel has not had to worry about these situations for a while: no official state guest has been to the Chancellery since the beginning of the critical pandemic phase. She will hardly miss the military marches at the receptions either. 

Despite being a Wagner fan, Merkel is surely familiar with Udo-Jürgens-Gassenhauer’s hit: “When you’re 66 ” from 1977 according to which, life starts at 66 and includes the famous line: “You will still be surprised when I am a pensioner. As soon as the stress is over, I will have a lot of fun.”

And so to the question – what will Merkel do once the political stress is over? She has long made clear that her Chancellorship will definitely come to an end after the federal elections at the end of September 2021, even if there are many voters and many in the party who would gladly have it otherwise. 

Will Merkel ever ‘retire’?

Some close companions have said that Merkel is not thinking much about retirement at the moment – mainly because she simply doesn’t have time for it now. Merkel will surely have more time than before to relax in her beloved holiday home near Templin in the Uckermark.

Her desire to travel abroad, for example to the US, is also well known. And of course, she will finally have more leisure time and time to enjoy classical music and her love of Wagner, which she shares with her husband Joachim Sauer. 

But hardly anyone who knows her well can really imagine Merkel retiring into a private life after living a life of politics. It could well be that the ex-chancellor will be engaged in one of the themes which are close to her heart such as Africa, women, health and the fight against nationalism.

More than 20 years ago, Merkel told photographer Herlinde Koelbl that she wished to avoid leaving politics as a “half-dead wreck”. 

It looks like, unlike many of her predecessors, she has managed to choose the right time to say goodbye to politics.

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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
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘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”.