Mysterious Merkel

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Boyes

The future of Europe is in the hands of one painfully private leader. What does the chancellor really think?

The Lady prefers blonds. Angela Merkel, 57, once dubbed the Queen of Europe, likes to surround herself with smooth-shaven, uncrumpled, and, yes, often blond courtiers and allies. Just look at her most successful spin doctor, the velvety Ulrich Wilhelm. Or the man she chose for Germany's president, the straight-backed Christian Wulff. Or the economic adviser she appointed as head of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, who seems to have emerged from the same gene pool. It's not really their Germanic features and grooming that interest the chancellor, of course, but rather their sober, Germanic approach to global crisis: If in doubt, stick to the rules.

Some years ago, after an interview with Merkel, I had a run-in with the chancellery. I had, said the court of Angela, violated a vaguely defined embargo for publication. "The chancellor believes this to be unacceptable behavior!" yelped Wilhelm over the phone. "We thought Britain was the home of fair play!" The Mistress of Order had spoken. Now she and her team, baffled by the bond markets' sudden whistle-blowing power over individual euro-zone economies, are struggling to impose German order, not only on a scruffy correspondent but on the whole continent. It is not a pretty sight.

For the Germans, fair play has nothing to do with cricket. Rather, it derives from a sense of entitlement. The open question--and it goes to the core of the enigma of Angela Merkel--is how far the country's curdling resentment will congeal into a harder-edged national agenda. As the continent's biggest economy, and as the country that will therefore have to foot most of the bills, Germany is asserting the right to impose conditions and standards on the backsliders. Just as Germany once insisted that the European Central Bank replicate the Bundesbank's political independence and anti-inflationary principles--the country's absolute condition for abandoning its beloved Deutsche mark--so, now, it wants to impose German fiscal discipline everywhere and at all times, in return for bailing out the Greeks and the rest of the stragglers. So far, five European governments have stumbled because of their inability to deal with the crisis, and Merkel's people quietly nod their approval that the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) are now being punished for their sloppy housekeeping. Mario Monti, the head of Italy's newly technocratic government, is said to be "very German," as is the European Central Bank's new president, Mario Draghi. "No nation wants to have its money thrown out of the window," says a senior Christian Democrat. "We want cast-iron guarantees, promises in writing, reassurance that miscreants will be punished."

Germany's voters are almost marginal in Berlin's handling of the euro crisis. Decisions are made by a handful of insiders clustered around the chancellor and her Bundesbank chief. Ultimately the responsibility for holding the European Union together has fallen on the shoulders of a woman who grew up in the country then known as East Germany and came to political maturity as the communist empire fell apart. When the Berlin Wall collapsed in November 1989, she didn't rush off to watch history in the making. Instead she went for her weekly sauna session. Her critics, dismayed by her delayed response to a crisis that has been unfolding for so long, joke that she seems to have retreated to the sauna again--this time for two steamy years. Opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier says there's a Merkel Law: "The more fiercely Merkel rules something out, the more certain it is that she will eventually adopt that policy." Hence the flip-flops, not only on how to handle the euro crisis but also on issues like her previous commitment to nuclear energy, after Fukushima.

So why is the chancellor such a sluggish crisis manager? …