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Tags: merkel | leadership | europe | chaos

War and Default: Merkel Leadership Challenged by European Chaos

Sunday, 08 February 2015 12:12 PM

After almost a decade as German chancellor, Angela Merkel faces a moment of truth as a resurgent Russia and fed-up Greeks challenge her blueprint for Europe’s future.

As bloodshed in eastern Ukraine escalates and the new Greek government rejects austerity championed by Merkel, her deliberate leadership style may be reaching the limit of its effectiveness.

With Europe’s post-Cold War order and its unifying currency at stake, the weight of global and domestic expectations is pushing Merkel out of her comfort zone and into two direct confrontations. Both adversaries and allies have repeatedly underestimated Merkel’s determination as she rose from obscurity in an East German laboratory to become the world’s most powerful woman.

“It underscores how much Germany is really the pivotal power in Europe and Angela Merkel is the pivotal leader,” Daniel Hamilton, head of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said in an interview. “Much of it has to do with Germany’s success, but much of it also has to do with default by other powers. It’s not like she or Germany aspires to this role.”

Merkel’s status as Europe’s go-to leader will be on display when President Barack Obama hosts her at the White House on Monday, with a joint press conference scheduled for 11:40 a.m. Two days later, she’s set to be in Minsk, Belarus, for four-way talks with French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

The biggest risk for Merkel is if either crisis spiraled out of control. At that point, she would have failed to address “German concern about stability,” Hamilton said.

Competing Visions

While Merkel, 60, doesn’t deliver grand visions of European unity and reconciliation like her mentor Helmut Kohl, she has a practical set of values that are now under threat.

For the 19-nation currency bloc, her goal is to make economies from Greece to Ireland more like her export-driven powerhouse. She says changes are vital to adapt to globalization and Europe’s aging populations as deflation treatens the euro zone and growth is stuck at about 1 percent. At the same time, bailouts she backed have spawned a challenge by the anti-euro Alternative for Germany party that limits her leeway for cutting another deal with Greece.

In Ukraine, Merkel sees Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the advance of Russian-backed separatists as a breach of the post-Cold War order that thrust a peace-seeking Germany to the center of the continent’s map.

A physicist by training, Merkel uses trial-and-error to make policy and tries to wait out opponents she can’t immediately defeat. She’s been honing that tactic, denying Putin a face-to-face meeting for more than two months until Friday and stalling Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on his demands for easier bailout terms.

Waiting Game

“We’re waiting for proposals, then we’ll enter into talks,” she said Feb. 3 when asked about Greece.

As fighting escalated in Ukraine, another Merkel came into view -- the pragmatist who’s ready to change tack. After telling Putin for weeks she wouldn’t meet him unless he produced tangible peace overtures, she joined Hollande for talks in Moscow. She will meet Tsipras for the first time at a Feb. 12 European Union summit.

“How she’ll handle these days will define her historic legacy,” said Irwin Collier, an economist at Free University in Berlin who has followed German politics for two decades. “The immediacy and urgency of taming the dual Greek and Ukraine nightmares are defining moments for Europe and Merkel.”

Ukraine’s conflict has turned into a game of chicken between Putin, the former Soviet KGB spy who learned Merkel’s language in her East German homeland, and Merkel, the math whiz whose high-school Russian was so good she won a trip to Moscow.

German Banter

Putin’s German is better than Merkel’s Russian, so banter between them tends to be in German, according to a person familiar with their conversations. When Putin is pressed about his policies, he switches to formal Russian, the person said.

That connection hasn’t prevented their estrangement. Merkel still sees the KGB agent’s mindset in Putin, according to the two German officials. The Kremlin views Merkel as abandoning a balanced approach and taking a pro-U.S. line against the Kremlin on Ukraine, according to a Russian official. All three asked not to be named citing private policy discussions.

For all their shared past, Merkel takes an unemotional view of the German-Russian partnership, mirroring her view of Europe.

Similar Wavelengths

“She and Putin both grew up in the East Bloc, so they’re on similar wavelengths,” Karl-Heinz Kamp, head of the German government’s Academy for Security Policy in Berlin, said by phone. “No other country or leader has Merkel’s clout to be the go-between for Russia and Europe.”

Last fall, mounting deaths in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s denial of involvement cemented the gap between them. It widened at the Group of 20 summit in Australia in November after the two met for almost four hours.

“The emotional connection completely disappeared when Merkel stopped understanding Putin’s logic,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser to Putin, said in an interview.

“Step by step” emerged as Merkel’s mantra during the debt crisis, when she refused to heed demands by the U.S. and European allies to deploy more German resources to halt the turmoil. Germans like it, regularly ranking her as the most popular politician in polls.

Merkel is also hemmed in by Germany’s militaristic past and the legacy of the Holocaust.

“The alternative is a German leader that speaks out forcefully on every issue and that would invite -- that is the German view -- countervailing coalitions against the Germans,” Hamilton said. “You can see that on the euro issue. She’s criticized as not being forceful enough, but in Greece people compare her to Hitler.”

© Copyright 2022 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

After almost a decade as German chancellor, Angela Merkel faces a moment of truth as a resurgent Russia and fed-up Greeks challenge her blueprint for Europe's future.As bloodshed in eastern Ukraine escalates and the new Greek government rejects austerity championed by...
merkel, leadership, europe, chaos
Sunday, 08 February 2015 12:12 PM
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