Angela Merkel’s 16-year battle with the centrifugal forces of politics

As Maren Heinzerling crossed hands with the most powerful woman in the world, leaned backwards and started to spin her dance partner in a circle, she began to worry.

“What are you doing,” the retired railway engineer recalled thinking. “You are spinning around the room with Angela Merkel.” Heinzerling had to grip the chancellor’s hands tighter as they span faster with each rotation.

“I realised I couldn’t let go, or the chancellor would have careered across the hall and smashed into a wall.”

The scene dates back to 17 May 2017, when Heinzerling, then 78, was invited to Merkel’s chancellory in Berlin to pick up a national award for her volunteering work, teaching physics to primary-school-age refugee children.

Heinzerling had improvised their little dance number after Merkel, who has a PhD in quantum chemistry, had been too quick on an experiment the science teacher had devised for the cameras to do their work.

“But then I remembered this other experiment,” Heinzerling said, and she spontaneously grabbed the chancellor’s hands.

The point of the dance was to demonstrate centrifugal force, which in Newtonian mechanics is the invisible force that appears to act on a body moving in a circular path.

Merkel’s lack of a poker face has become immortalised in comedy sketches, her eye-rolls and frowns at press conferences and obligatory public functions are memes on social media. But in pictures of the her dance with Heinzerling, she is smiling.

“My impression was that Frau Merkel cared for nothing else in the world at that moment,” Heinzerling told the Guardian in March, three weeks before she died unexpectedly.

Perhaps the German chancellor was smiling because she knew that the photographers had a chance to snap a perfect metaphor for her idea of leadership. The scientific concept of centrifugal forces has been repeatedly cited by Merkel and her spokespeople to describe political challenges. Over the course of 16 years, she has dedicated most of her political energy towards nullifying crises that could have spiralled out of control.

When Merkel clears her desk at the chancellory, she will have matched the record previously held by her mentor, the “eternal chancellor” Helmut Kohl.

Unlike all her seven male predecessors, she will be stepping down of her own will, at the end of a full term, and while her popularity ratings remain so phenomenally high that her three most likely successors have all in different ways modelled themselves on her.

Merkel managed to retain her power by moving her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) into the centre of the political spectrum, entering coalitions with both the centre-right Free Democratic party (FDP) and the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD). Merkel’s CDU became the sun that other parties could merely orbit. A coalition with the Green party long looked like the logical conclusion of her realignment: in 2018, it only failed because of the reluctance of the FDP.

Critics say the cost of Merkel’s success has been an erosion of the political landscape: by co-opting other parties’ policies and programmes, she has made Germany’s traditional parties increasingly indistinguishable. The CDU has struggled to put up a united front as it approaches the post-Merkel era: party insiders fear a defeat at the September vote could throw the once-dominant force of German postwar politics into an existential crisis that could culminate in a split between centrists and conservative hardliners.

Having spent the first 35 years of her life on the eastern side of the iron curtain, Merkel already had first-hand experience of how quickly political systems can unravel once forces of flight are unleashed.

After winning her first election in 2005, Germany’s first female chancellor brought to her office a heightened awareness that even small decisions in the most populous and economically powerful country at the heart of the European Union could have direct consequences for the continent as a whole.

“Merkel has two core qualities,” said Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung and author of her authorised biography. “She is risk-averse and a centrist in the sense that she wants to bring people together rather than alienate them. These qualities apply to domestic politics as well as the European Union, which is a political constellation that has an intrinsic tendency to drift apart.”

Months into Merkel’s second term in office, the EU risked being wrenched apart by events on the stock markets. A global recession sparked by a burst housing bubble in the US triggered a balance-of-payment crisis in the eurozone, which member states were unable to counteract through devaluation because they were tied into the same currency.

As the crisis intensified, politicians in northern Europe called on countries like Greece or Italy to be kicked out of the club, which would have amounted to a de-facto break-up of the eurozone.

Against domestic resistance, Merkel took the necessary steps to keep the arms of the eurozone member states tightly locked together, negotiating bailouts for hardest-hit states and giving political support for massive liquidity injections on behalf of the European Central Bank.

As France’s influence wavered under presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, and Britain began to peel off from the bloc of nations, Merkel rose to become Europe’s single most powerful broker of compromises.

She retained that role in the years leading up to and after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, patiently enduring the special pleading of British prime ministers in the hope of keeping the UK within the EU’s orbit while keeping a united front with the other 26 member states. “We must do everything to prevent centrifugal forces,” she said in a speech shortly after the Brexit vote.

“Merkel’s greatest legacy is that she managed to keep the EU together in an era of intense strain, something that requires political will power and usually some German money,” Kornelius said.

Perhaps the greatest irony of her leadership is that it took a woman from the east to assuage fears, shared more or less openly by most European states at the time, around a post-reunification resurgence of German aggression.

In spite of her erstwhile criticism of the Schröder government’s pacifist stance on Iraq, Germany under her leadership engaged in no new wars other than pro-forma participation in European military missions against Islamic State and in Mali. In 2011, the same year that Merkel’s second government ended military conscription, it refrained from joining the Nato mission in Libya.

“She steered Germany into the centre of Europe and increased its influence without being perceived as a threat by its neighbours,” said Kornelius. “That’s a historic achievement.”

Yet while Germany may no longer perceived as a threat, another kind of suspicion has grown: that Merkel has turned her country into a kind of oversized Switzerland, a state that favours chequebook diplomacy over military conflict but remains politically neutral less out of principle than to protect its trade links.

Merkel provoked Chinese ire when she met the Dalai Lama at the start of her leadership, but intensified commercial ties to the People’s Republic thereafter, with nigh-annual visits to Beijing and exports tripling over the course of a decade and a half.

She aided Russian dissidents like Alexei Navalny, but has also relentlessly pursued a Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that many fear will increase Russia’s geopolitical influence. The distrust such decisions has sown in the Ukraine, other eastern European states and the Baltics is often ignored in Berlin’s political circles.

While Merkel always took the right steps in moments of crisis to guarantee that Europe would not spin out of control, she has done little to stabilise the continent’s joint political structures by deepening them.

“The image of centrifugal forces is key to Merkel’s stance on Europe, but the same image also reveals her greatest flaw,” said Josef Janning, senior associate fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“She never understood that centrifugal forces can only be contained in the long run by strengthening the centripetal force, to pull bodies of mass more strongly to the centre.” Partly as a result of German vetoes, Europe’s fiscal and banking union remains incomplete. A common European asylum system remains out of reach. A sovereign European security strategy, allowing the union of states to act more independently of the United States, is still an idea rather than a reality.

“Germany under Merkel hasn’t amplified Europe’s ambition,” said Janning. “It has given up articulating an idea where Europe should eventually end up. It has simply made itself comfortable in an imperfect set-up”.

At its best, Merkel’s almost scientific approach to decision-making meant she understood political challenges as complex problems that cannot be solved with soundbites. At no point in her 16 years as chancellor was this more apparent than in the summer of 2015, when more than one million migrants and refugees, most of whom had been uprooted by the war in Syria, crossed into Europe.

Merkel’s decision not to close Germany’s borders to those arriving via Hungary and shelter around 890,000 refugees over the course of that year is well known. Less well known are the alternative scenarios sketched out by her advisers.

Closed doors on the German border would have meant a build-up of refugees on the Balkan route, causing chaos in a region still recovering from a decade of civil wars. It could have left Greece, the focal point of the first crisis of the Merkel era, to cope with millions of refugees on its own. And it would have risked destroying the Schengen system, the foundational principle of open borders within Europe. Taking in Syria’s refugees, not stopping them, looked like the anti-centrifugal option.

“One of Merkel’s greatest strengths has always been that she thought about political problems rationally, and in the long term, when most of her male antagonists thought about them emotionally, in the short term,” said Gerald Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a thinktank that advises EU member-states on migration policy. “She has a scientist’s scepticism: can this solution actually be made to work?

“In 2015, for example, she knew that closing the German border to refugees wasn’t actually an option while her government was committed to not use violence to deter individuals. In recent years some governments, like Croatia on its border with Bosnia, were prepared to treat refugees cruelly. But Germany in 2015 made an ethical decision not to.”

The events of summer 2015 did unleash new forces, which threatened to overstretch the capacities of the German state – the staff of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees increased five-fold that year – and eventually to loosen Merkel’s own hold on political power.

Anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which had originally been founded in opposition to Merkel’s bailouts during the eurozone crisis, become an openly rightwing populist outfit and found a new stride, entering parliament for the first time as the third largest party in 2017.

Rightwing extremist circles were further radicalised, increasingly targeting asylum shelters with arson attacks in the coming years and assassinating a CDU Merkel ally with pro-immigration views in 2019. No other country in Europe saw as much severe and fatal rightwing violence that same year as Germany.

Yet once again Merkel understood how to slow down the dance: she resisted calls to step down, and sat out the conflict with her inner-party rivals.

A “money for refugees” deal with Turkey, and similar arrangements with Libya and Morocco, meant the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Germany dropped off dramatically. The AfD has carved out a steady presence in the former regions of Germany’s east, but has struggled to formulate coherent policies beyond its anti-immigration stance and looks set to underperform on its 2017 showing this September.

“In the end, Merkel survived the refugee crisis because she resisted the pressure to make promises she couldn’t keep,” said Knaus, who is credited with devising the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU. “Others made that mistake and became unbelievable as a result.”

The German chancellor’s heightened awareness of the centrifugal forces inherent in dynamic situations has also given her a tendency to slow down processes of a more progressive nature. Merkel, Germany’s environment minister in Kohl’s fifth cabinet in the 90s, has throughout her tenure spoken of the climate crisis as a “global challenge”. But her own record on the subject is mixed.

The decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany was one that Merkel inherited from the preceding Social Democrat-Green coalition government, but one which she had started to put into reverse gear in her second term before U-turning again after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. Germany is now on course to close its last six remaining nuclear plants by the end of 2022.

Critics say the nuclear exit has increased Germany’s reliance on dirty carbon-based coal and gas, though supporters of the policy argue the exit plan drove a boom for renewable energy sources that would not have happened otherwise.

“The optimists were right,” said Uwe Leprich, a climate policy specialist at the Saarland University of Applied Sciences. Balancing nuclear and renewable sources on the same energy grid, he argued, would have been an enormous technical challenge that would have slowed down green innovation.

Instead, Germany looked for a few years like it wanted to become the world’s green champion. At the height of a boom in solar power, German companies producing photo-voltaic modules hogged 20% of the global market. In the years after Fukushima, the number of new wind farms built every year gained pace dramatically: the amount of electricity gained from wind blowing across German land and sea doubled to 106 TWH within six years.

But as Germany’s Energiewende (“energy turn”) picked up speed, Merkel’s government tried to reduce its momentum. Renewable energy, her cabinet argued, needed to outgrow the subsidy regime of old and learn to finance itself through the market alone. Since 2017, wind farms are no longer paid set feed-in premiums but have to compete for subsidies in an auction system.

The number of new wind farms has dropped off dramatically since then. Since the start of the year 2018, Germany has built 1,728 new turbines – fewer than in the year 2017 alone. The slowdown could now threaten Germany’s target to cover 65% of its electricity needs through renewable energy by 2030.

A reluctance to support new technologies as aggressively as its competitors has already put an end to the solar boom: there are no German companies among the world’s top 10 manufacturers of solar panels. Seven of them are Chinese.

“Germany got scared of its own courage,” said Leprich. “We fell back to the energy blueprints of the noughties, and ignored new technologies that could have have offered alternative means to store energy.

“Under Merkel, Germany gambled away its former status as a renewable energy leader and has long been overtaken by nations like Denmark or the Netherlands.”

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