Merkel’s political and scientific sides slug it out in swan song presser

As she faced a lecture-hall sized auditorium packed with national and international press for the last time in her 16-year chancellorship, there was a sense that the room was simultaneously hearing from two very different people in Angela Merkel.

One was Merkel the politician, unafraid to talk up her achievements, who patted herself on the back for diplomatic victories and expertly fudged answers to difficult questions. The other was Merkel the scientist, who found it hard to skirt around uncomfortable truths and instinctively wanted to scrutinise her doppelgänger’s track record.

Merkel’s training as a quantum chemist has always set her apart from the male lawyers, economists and journalists who held the highest office in German politics before her – as she did not fail to remind her audience on Thursday morning at the last of her annual summer press conferences before she steps down in two months’ time.

At best, the scientific background has made Merkel a politician with an unusually high awareness of there being an objective reality which political language can at best imitate but rarely touch.

One of the recent trends in western democracies that most worried her, she said, was a social media-fuelled “mixing of feelings and facts”, a phenomenon she felt had the potential to unroll the achievements of the Enlightenment. “These are two separate categories: feelings are feelings, and facts are facts.”

Her inability to let politics descend to sloganeering is striking, even more so when compared with certain British prime ministers.

Asked whether there had been distinctly feminine quality in her leadership, Merkel the politician briefly smelled a catchy line. “On balance, women have a certain yearning for efficiency.”

But even as her quip triggered sniggers around the room, Merkel the scientist began rowing back, imagining the headlines in horror: you could not generalise about male and female behaviour as such, she clarified, women were more different then they were alike.

At her worst, as when she turned to the subject of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia, Merkel speaks like a scientist about what are political decisions, presenting choices as inevitable procedures.

The deal with the US, which commits Germany to sanction Russia if it tries to use energy supplies as geopolitical leverage but enables completion of the gas pipeline, was “a good step that does not overcome all divergences”, Merkel said, making it sound like a conflict resolution workshop rather than a concrete project that places Germany’s industrial interests over the concerns of its eastern European and Baltic neighbours.

Yet on climate change, the subject arguably set to dominate her last two months in office, Merkel the scientist is making herself heard against Merkel the politician more loudly than usual.

“Germany has done a lot,” she said, championing the expansion of renewable energy and reduction of carbon emissions under her watch.

But the scientist would not let her finish. Measured against the target to limit global warming to well below 2C, preferably to 1.5C, above pre-industrial levels, she said: “What has been achieved is not sufficient.”

Then as a politician she added: “I am of the opinion that I have invested a lot of energy in climate protection.” The scientist continued: “And nonetheless I am equipped with sufficient sense for science to see that objective circumstances demand that we can’t continue at the current pace but have to up the tempo.”

A true political animal would have used her last big press conference to champion the designated successor who will carry on her legacy, or verbally sabotage his competitors. Yet Merkel indirectly distanced herself from Armin Laschet, the new leader of her Christian Democratic Union, when she insisted that overall rates of new Covid-19 infections should still play a central role when it came to considering pandemic restrictions; Laschet wants the occupancy of intensive care beds to become a more important indicator.

When one journalist suggested that her possible successor had neither understood the challenge of the climate crisis nor the mechanics behind the pandemic growth, Merkel replied without using Laschet’s name. “I think everyone has understood by now how exponential growth works.” It sounded like the opposite of an enthusiastic endorsement.

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