Helmut Kohl once patronised her as “mein Mädchen” (“my girl”); Nicolas Sarkozy sneers at her privately as “la Boche” (the French equivalent of “Jerry” or “Kraut”); Silvio Berlusconi makes obscene remarks about her to his editors. This week, however, it wasn’t the Continental chauvinists who had the last laugh: it was Angela Merkel.
The German chancellor dominated the European stage as no woman has done since Margaret Thatcher. The two could hardly differ more, either in personality or politics. Indeed, Merkel reminds me of a different Mrs T: she is a Teutonic Mrs Tiggywinkle, who kindly takes in the eurozone’s dirty linen but whose homely figure conceals her hedgehog’s prickles. In the perpetual negotiation machine that is the European Union, Merkel excels at getting her way while treating the male egos around her as gently as possible. She does not relish humiliating her more improvident relations, but she is determined not to be the rich aunt left with the bill at the end of the meal.
David Cameron gets on better with Merkel than some of his hand-kissing counterparts, who bow and scrape to her face, while sniping behind her back. The German chancellor and the British Prime Minister have come a long way since their first encounters, which were reportedly frosty. She took him for a typical Tory Eurosceptic; he underestimated her. But she has come to appreciate him since he took office, especially his determination to make Britain live within its means, which mirrors her own approach to the crisis.
For his part, Cameron has grown to admire Merkel as the high mistress of austerity. She is delighted that he is content to leave her a free hand within the eurozone to pursue closer fiscal and political unity, as long as Britain is equally free to stay out. She is sympathetic to the PM’s difficulty in reconciling his party’s instincts on Europe with those of his coalition partners. Merkel has comparable problems in holding together her own conservative-liberal coalition, which is deeply divided on the issue of bailing out Greece and the other bankrupt economies.
Merkel has learnt much from the experience of living under Communism for her first 35 years, and also from what happened to her native East Germany after reunification, when it was given the benefit of the Deutschmark years before the experiment of currency union was tried on a European scale. The Federal Republic has been bailing out its own eastern provinces for over two decades. Anyone who doubts that Angela Merkel is in earnest when she tells her parliament that Europe faces “its gravest crisis since the Second World War” should remember how the Germans have honoured that commitment to their own people. How committed, though, are they to doing the same for other nations in the eurozone with whom they may feel they have rather less in common, and whose ingratitude is palpable? » | Daniel Johnson | Friday, October 28, 2011