Angela Merkel has acquired more than her share of nicknames over the course of her political career. Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor who was Merkel’s early political benefactor, referred to her condescendingly as das Maedchen—the girl. When she first campaigned to become chancellor, she was sometimes called the Iron Lady, a nod to Margaret Thatcher. Her policies during the euro crisis have earned the occasional reference to Otto von Bismarck (aka the Iron Chancellor); the French have contributed Madame Non. For most Germans, however, only one nickname has managed to stick: Mutti, an antiquated term for mommy. Mutti is the caregiver who makes comfort food when you’re upset and holds your hand when you’re scared.
Merkel will almost certainly win Germany’s national election on Sept. 22 because of her impassive, no-drama demeanor in the face of the euro crisis. In those parts of Europe suffering acute economic pain, that style has provoked anger, even revulsion. Protesters in Greece and Spain depict Merkel not as a gentle Mutti but as a harbinger of doom with a Hitler mustache.
Throughout her career, silence and action have been closely intertwined. By publicly refusing to compromise German interests, Merkel has created the political space to nudge Europe toward deeper integration—the only way the European Union as it presently exists can survive. If she enters the history books for ending Europe’s debt crisis, it will be precisely because she made it seem she was never interested in the history books to begin with.
Merkel’s political reticence partly reflects her personality. “In our society, we are too stingy with silence,” she once admonished on a televised talk show. “We’ve gotten too loud as a society.” If that doesn’t seem like a quote from a natural politician, that’s because she isn’t one: Merkel was a professional physicist in East Berlin before Kohl decided to install her as a leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union in the years after reunification. When it comes to the EU, Merkel’s election platform offers a token dose of sentimentalism, declaring the “commitment to Europe” to be “a matter of the heart.” But unlike most of her predecessors, Merkel claims no special affinity for the Franco-German relationship. Growing up in East Germany, she had a knack for Russian (her French teacher moved away after marrying a Canadian and was never replaced), and American popular culture has always been her preferred escape.
Merkel’s public persona has been shaped by her assessment of the German people’s temperament. “She believes that the great majority of them are uninterested and even ignorant of politics and that they are scared of reforms,” writes German journalist Nikolaus Blome in a recent Merkel biography. “The average German doesn’t want to have much explained—which is why she doesn’t invest much in explaining.” Rather than initiate political discussions, she generally allows other politicians to debate issues of their own choosing; Merkel steps in only when a public consensus has formed.
Her domestic record has been consistently pragmatic—or, less generously, consistently opportunistic. She abolished mandatory military conscription, despite having been a longtime supporter of the policy. After the meltdowns of nuclear power reactors in Fukushima, Japan, she went from being a supporter of nuclear power to initiating a wholesale national transition to renewable energy. She was once stridently against a national minimum wage; this year it’s in her party’s platform. In all these instances, she’s gotten credit for passing popular reforms, while managing to keep her fingerprints off any positions that might alienate the public.
She’s handled European politics the same way. Invited to give a speech at Humboldt University in 2009 setting out her vision for Europe’s future, she said, “I am going to have to disappoint you, because I believe that long-term goals can make the immediate steps more difficult.” Merkel appreciates that Germany has become the de facto leader of the EU, but she also thinks, correctly, that most Germans value the comforts of economic security over the responsibilities that come with power.
Yet criticizing Merkel for her lack of vision misses the point. She’s insisted that the governments of southern Europe impose austerity as a condition of receiving German aid. This isn’t just a defense of Germany’s interests or a stubborn insistence on enforcing moral hazard. It’s also been her method for incrementally educating Germans about their stake in the survival of the euro system. Over the past several years, Merkel has spoken out against the following: intervention by the European Central Bank, a permanent bailout mechanism, centralized economic governance for the EU, and a banking union. In each case, she ultimately backtracked and lent German support to measures aimed at preventing the collapse of Europe’s weaker economies. Last summer, when ECB President Mario Draghi vowed to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the common currency, he was openly opposed by the Bundesbank—perhaps the most popular political institution in Germany. But Merkel gave Draghi her backing as soon as panicking bond markets forced her hand.
Merkel’s leadership-from-behind has at times raised the costs of the crisis. In early 2010 she publicly agreed to make EU money available to Greece without clarifying the extent of Germany’s contribution, triggering a bond market panic that spread to Ireland and beyond. Two years later she delayed determining the terms of a Greek bailout ahead of an important state election, which caused the size of the eventual bailout to grow.
Yet in political terms, Merkel’s strategy has been a remarkable success. More than two-thirds of Germans say they’re happy with her handling of the crisis, and the vast majority of the public, contrary to the fears of many German elites, says it wants to keep the euro. The major opposition parties have ceased attacking Merkel’s policies toward Europe. “Germany is experiencing a second economic miracle,” says Mark Schieritz, finance correspondent for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, referring to the country’s economic boom of the 1950s. “The euro crisis is not a natural topic of discussion.” The official platform of Merkel’s Christian Democrats runs to 127 pages, but only five are devoted to Europe. Rather than offer an outline of new ideas, those sections are essentially an endorsement of what Merkel’s already accomplished.
Her work isn’t done, however. Unemployment in the euro zone is at an all-time high, many countries are still stuck in recession, and the region is struggling with a severe credit crunch. The ECB has managed to keep Europe’s banking sector alive by offering it extraordinarily low borrowing rates, but European governments have yet to figure out which banks are solvent—a vital detail because the necessary bailouts could force the governments themselves into bankruptcy.
That’s why Europe’s leaders agree their next big project is the creation of a banking union, one capable of “breaking the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns,” as they put it in a statement after their June 2012 summit. For many European policymakers, it was implicit that a banking union would need a common fund to backstop insolvent banks, that is to say, a fund backed by German money. But Merkel clearly doesn’t feel compelled to give her endorsement—yet.
Even if she wins another four-year mandate, Merkel is likely to prefer a process of trial and error over a big reveal. Europeans impatient with the chancellor’s deliberations would do well to consider an anecdote from her childhood. Merkel once recounted how, during an elementary school swimming lesson, she made her way to the top of a 10-foot diving board only to discover that she was unable to bring herself to jump. For 45 minutes, she peered over the edge of the board. A bell eventually sounded announcing that class was over—and that’s when she made the leap. “I always try to think everything through beforehand,” she confessed. “I am not spontaneously courageous.” Merkel may never express great enthusiasm for committing more German resources to rescue the rest of Europe. But don’t be surprised if she keeps taking the plunge.