If one were writing a guidebook for would-be political leaders, one might well use Angela Merkel as a negative example. She is not media-friendly. She is not charismatic. She is not physically fit or well-dressed. She does not give off an aura of decisiveness and indeed has been known to leave extremely important decisions until it is almost too late. Her political campaigns are boring, her personal life even more so. She sometimes likes to compare her economic policies to those of a “Swabian housewife.”
Nevertheless, this frumpy, unassuming East German has just been re-elected chancellor of Germany, and therefore leader of Europe, for the third time. Or maybe empress of Europe is the more appropriate title, since Merkel doesn’t really lead: She reigns. She doesn’t tell people what to do, she doesn’t give orders, she isn’t bossy or pushy. She doesn’t throw Germany’s weight around or make demands. She simply sets parameters, and then lets everybody else make “choices” themselves.
During the Greek euro crisis, she never shouted at Greek politicians or denounced Greek economic policies in public. Although some German tabloids tried to drum up anti-Greek sentiment, she stayed well away from such talk. Instead, she saw to it that European Union bureaucrats went to Athens where they quietly insisted on dull but important things like shortened vacations for the civil service, higher taxes on swimming pools, and lower expenditures on public housing. Over time, the crisis ceased to be a crisis, and Greece drifted off the front pages.
Merkel’s critics will note that Greece remains a problem, not least for the Greeks, who have a youth unemployment rate so high that many already speak of a “lost generation.” But as this might have been the case no matter what happened—whether Greece left the euro, or stayed in the euro, or reformed, or didn’t—it’s probably just as well that the German chancellor didn’t throw any nationalist emotions into the mix. But even when some Greeks started shouting about the Nazis, Merkel stayed mute, and the shouting died down; the Greeks elected a government dedicated to German-style economic reforms, and the Germans re-elected Merkel.
After eight years in office and three election victories, Merkel’s leadership can no longer be described as a fluke or an accident, as some first thought. Her very dullness, her middle-aged frumpiness, and her lack of emotion must actually represent something that Germans want: leadership without drama. It’s not just that she’s a “safe pair of hands”: Merkel provokes no jealousy, no anxiety, and no fear, either in Germany or in Germany’s immediate neighborhood.
Nobody writes about Merkel as the leader of the “Fourth Reich,” after all, and nobody compares her to Hitler or Bismarck. The eastern neighbors treat Germany as a benign partner. The southern neighbors are resentful but can’t really complain. Everyone else imports German products and feels relieved that at least one large European country still has decent economic growth and good prospects for the immediate future. Merkel makes it possible for Germany to be the dominant power in Europe without anybody really noticing, in other words. That suits her countrymen. And for the moment, it seems to suit other Europeans as well.