Angela Merkel’s leadership style: willingness to change

Germany’s chancellor has been known as a disciple of fiscal austerity. But when an economic crisis hit, she saw the need for a radical response.

dpa via AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the press in Berlin July 2, 2020. Germany took over the presidency of the EU July 1.

Angela Merkel had been a cautious technocrat. The German chancellor demanded a government run with fiscal austerity. And while she’s always acknowledged Germany’s key role in the European Union, she never pushed to see that union grow stronger. 

Her educational background (a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry) has taught her to take a methodical, low-key approach to problem-solving.

But with her political career nearing its end – she’ll leave office in 2021 – she’s now showing another quality: a willingness to dramatically change course when new evidence calls for it.

Ms. Merkel and Germany took over the rotating presidency of the EU July 1. The union faces a pair of huge difficulties familiar to governments around the world: a pandemic and, as a result, in her own words, “the greatest economic challenge in the history of the European Union.”

She arrives in her post with another strength: the backing of the German people. Her popularity waned in 2015 when in a gesture of compassion she allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-ravaged countries such as Syria to settle in Germany, spurring a rapid rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.

Yet in early 2020, when the pandemic arrived, Ms. Merkel was able to move swiftly to coordinate efforts to fight its spread: Deaths and cases quickly dropped to low levels, and the situation appears under control. 

The public appreciated her efforts: A recent poll showed a remarkable 82% of Germans approve of her performance in office.

Now the problem-solver faces another huge task: persuading the EU’s member countries to collectively undertake a gigantic aid program to help those devastated by the economic crisis. In May she and French President Emmanuel Macron proposed that the EU borrow €500 billion ($545 billion) on financial markets to fund the effort. So much for an austere and debt-free Germany.

But the times, she realized, had demanded it. In a recent wide-ranging interview with a half-dozen leading European newspapers, she set out her thinking. Germany had watched as countries such as Italy suffered a heart-rending human and economic disaster. “It is only right for Germany to think not just about itself but to be prepared to engage in an extraordinary act of solidarity,” she said. “It was in that spirit that ... [President] Macron and I made our proposal.”

Helping needy neighbors was good for everyone, she insisted. “It is in Germany’s interest to have ... the European Union grow closer together, not fall apart. As ever, what’s good for Europe is good for us.”

Very high unemployment provides the tinder for political upheaval “and thereby increase[s] the threat to democracy,” she said. “For Europe to survive, its economy needs to survive.”

Framing the problem as economically stronger northern European countries, who must bail out weaker southern economies, isn’t useful, she said. “That is seeing things in black and white. I expect each of us always to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and consider problems from the other’s point of view.”

In sum, she said, “I see my job as working for a ... Europe rooted in the fundamental rights of the individual.”

That broad perspective she embraces holds great promise to guide Europe through this economic storm, and allow it to emerge again: prosperous, democratic, and united.

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