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Merkel here, there, everywhere

Marcel Fürstenau / msh
February 13, 2015

Angela Merkel has become the key player in the most diverse set of crises, be they domestic, European, or even military. This speaks volumes for her strengths, but also poses risks, according to DW's Marcel Fürstenau.

Ukraine Konferenz in Minsk Merkel
Minsk, Washington, Ottawa, Berlin, Munich, Brussels, Moscow - all in a week's work for Angela Merkel just nowImage: picture-alliance/AP/A. Zemlianichenko

Angela Merkel plays starring roles on a string of domestic and international stages - often the decisive role. These tales rarely lack for drama: the undeclared war between Ukraine and Russia, the smoldering "crisis" in the eurozone. It's Merkel's home front that's quiet, at least by comparison. Some angry citizens demonstrating over the course of a few months against what they perceive as the "Islamization" of Germany quickly lose their shock-value when compared with several thousand dead on European soil.

Despite all the naysayers' cries, Merkel's patient paths of diplomacy - in Kyiv and Moscow, Brussels and Berlin, or Washington and Minsk - have borne fruit, again. With French President Hollande at her side, she has prevented a further escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Anybody who would downplay this can count themselves amongst the agitators, who can be found on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fortunately, Merkel's no hot-head; she keeps her cool. Perhaps this ability can be traced back to her growing up in the former Communist East German dictatorship. Those obligatory Russian lessons in school - at which Merkel excelled, incidentally - are proving to be an unexpected blessing nowadays. Merkel can discuss war and peace with Vladimir Putin in his mother tongue. The Russian president's mastery of the German language (dating back to his time in Berlin with the Soviet KGB) surely can't hurt either at times when mutual distrust peaks.

Macho Putin and 'Mutti Merkel'

So, whatever the strategic differences, there are elements which unite these leaders on the human level. Yet superficially, it's their differences one immediately notices. Putin likes to assume the role of the macho political poster-boy in Russia. Merkel has acquired the nickname "Mutti" (Mama) in Germany - a label that can be both reverent and mocking, depending on the person. It's true that her political style is a nurturing one: listen, relay, moderate. Increasingly, this has prompted analysts to describe her style of leading the German government as "presidential" - a nod to Germany's largely ceremonial post as head of state. Sometimes this is meant as a compliment, at other times, as a criticism: both stances have some validity.

But Merkel is capable of taking a clear stance, the best example being her actions in the murderous conflict between Ukraine and Russia: Yes to economic sanctions, no to military posturing and threats. In holding this line, she is even accepting the possibility of upsetting her most important ally - something, in turn, which the US must, and can, come to terms with. The weapons deliveries for Ukraine demanded by influential forces in the US are an absolute taboo for the most powerful woman on Earth. When it comes to genuine matters of life and death, Merkel's unbending in her stance. For this, she is owed respect, recognition, and thanks.

Kommentarfoto Marcel Fürstenau Hauptstadtstudio
Marcel Fürstenau, political analyst at DW's Berlin bureauImage: DW/S. Eichberg

The dangers of tunnel vision

Right now, Merkel's indefatigable efforts in the fight for world peace top the list of priorities. It's a process where she's needed, and admired by many. Nevertheless, or indeed as a result of this, the German chancellor must be careful to keep other flashpoints on her radar. The danger of overlooking or neglecting something is growing. Because Merkel is needed, now more than ever, to put out the world's fires, there naturally remains less time to devote to other problems.

The "euro-crisis" has been developing a new dynamic ever since a self-confident, occasionally over-confident, Greek government began demanding more respect and patience from its international creditors. A reputation for cold-heartedly ignoring the plight of impoverished people in southern Europe is sticking to Merkel like chewing gum. It's an image that she herself has helped carve, as a leading advocate of strict fiscal austerity policies.

The two faces of the chancellor

What's baffling is that in Europe, Merkel the politician appears consistent, while the head of Germany's government often seems hesitant and opportunistic at home. Take two examples: the phasing-out of nuclear power and the phasing-in of a minimum wage in Germany. On both these key policies, Merkel made a complete U-turn. For the first, she succumbed to public opinion in Germany in the hours and days after the Fukushima nuclear accident; while the minimum wage was a concession to the Social Democrats when setting up the current Grand Coalition government.

Her Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) conservative credentials have suffered as a result of this political style. Filling the resultant vacuum are parties with populist tendencies like the euroskeptic AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, or indeed protest movements like PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the 'Islamization' of the West). The chancellor should also concentrate on strengthening her domestic profile, and that of the CDU. Merkel the domestic leader would probably benefit from a closer study of Merkel the global diplomat.

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