Opinion

Time for Angela Merkel to go

BERLIN — For nearly 30 years, a photographer named Herlinde Koelbl met regularly with Angela Merkel. The photographer asked questions and shot some pictures.

The meetings were part of an art project called “Traces of Power” that set out to show how power changes people. Koelbls project featured alpha males like Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer, whose looks did indeed change as they rose in fame. Weight was gained, then lost again. Fat cigars entered the picture, along with expensive suits and a certain smugness.

In Merkel, however, the photographer found a politician who remained remarkably ­— and boringly — true to herself. Merkel was cautious, controlled, a little awkward, and intimately aware of the trappings that come with power.

In fact, she told Koelbl that she intends not to remain at the top for too long. “I dont want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics behind,” Merkel said in the late 1990s, when she was general secretary of the Christian Democratic Union.

“Traces of Power” was a success. Koelbls photographs and video interviews were shown in exhibitions all over Germany. They shaped the public perception of Merkel. Here, for once, was a powerful politician who came across as modest and authentic and didnt seem prone to narcissism.

Deep in her heart, Merkel must know that she should have quit a long time ago.

Its an image Merkel began to cultivate. In interviews, she often hinted that shed have a life beyond politics. Nothing too fancy, of course. Once her career was over, Merkel seemed to be suggesting, she would be found in her cottage in rural Uckermark, baking cakes and listening to classical music. In other words, she would know when to let go.

But then, sadly, she didnt. Germanys chancellor has been in office for a staggering 13 years now, way too long by her own standards. Even worse, shes a shadow of her former self. Merkel isnt running a government, shes barely managing to hold together her coalition, and shes turning into a figure of ridicule because of it.

Her catastrophic handling of her mutinous spy chief Hans-Georg Maaßen — first promoting him, then reversing that decision — suggests she has lost a sense of perspective.

“I have been too preoccupied by the functionality and the routines of the interior ministry,” she admitted in an oddly worded apology. “And I didnt sufficiently consider what people are thinking when they hear of such a promotion.”

Even Ralph Brinkhaus, left, did not expect to win the secret ballot vote over Volker Kauder | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Days later, her own party, the conservative CDU, turned against her. In a secret ballot on Wednesday, the CDUs lawmakers ousted Merkels longtime ally Volker Kauder and picked the lesser-known Ralph Brinkhaus to lead the partys parliamentary group.

There may be some far-flung places where Merkels reputation as the worlds most powerful woman and last defender of liberal values remains intact. But in Berlin they are calling her something else now. On the front page of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the CDUs favorite paper, Merkel was labelled a “lame duck.” European Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger, a CDU member, said the same thing about the chancellor.

The tragic irony is, of course, that Merkel has found herself in the very situation she so painstakingly wanted to avoid. Deep in her heart, she must know that she should have quit a long time ago.

* * *

In retrospect, its pretty clear the German chancellor should have left during or after her third term.

After the 2013 election, Merkel was at the peak of her powers, having steered Germany safely through the great financial crisis and the subsequent euro crisis. She looked at ease, and most Germans had gotten accustomed to having her there. They liked her pragmatism, her aversion to fancy rhetoric and to overambitious planning. They liked the idea — accurate or not — that Merkel, a trained physicist, did things by trial and error, taking only little steps, one at a time. They thought she was a great rationalist.

Merkels famous statement that Germany could cope with the influx of refugees was decidedly un-Merkelesque, because it raised unrealistic expectations.

Something else was also working in Merkels favor. German conservativism was in crisis when she took over. After experimenting with economic liberalism, the chancellor turned to the left and neutralized the opposition by embracing their ideas. Merkel governments introduced the minimum wage, abolished military conscription and turned away from nuclear energy. True conservatives hated her for it. But the gains she made in the political center more than made up for the losses. Or so it seemed at the time.

In his wonderfully perceptive book “Angela Merkel — Die Zauder-Künstlerin” published in 2013, journalist Nikolaus Blome reported that insiders he polled all agreed that Merkel would step down in 2015.

We know what happened instead. In the late summer of 2015, the refugees came. Merkel, under huge pressure, took a long-term decision that has haunted her ever since: She opened the German borders and kept them open for months.

Was her move the best possible option in a hellishly difficult situation? Or was it a grave mistake? The verdict on the long-term consequences isnt in yet. But acting as she did, Merkel violated some of her time-tested principles.

Dirk Kurbjuweit, another biographer, once wrote that Merkel knows to “convey messages in such a manner as to make it impossible to be proven wrong by future events or to make people angry at her.” Her famous statement that Germany could cope with the influx of refugees — Wir schaffen das — was decidedly un-Merkelesque, because it raised unrealistic expectations.

Alternativ für Deutschland supporters protest Angela Merkels border policies in Magdeburg, Germany in 2015 | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

She made other statements too that seemed out of character, as when she said in a television interview that stopping the refugees was impossible.

She probably meant to say that Germany was struggling through extraordinary circumstances and that there were no easy solutions. Fair enough. But thats not what it sounded like to conservatives and other worry-mongers.

They only heard that the Merkel government had lost control of Germanys borders and they were shocked.

* * *

Henry Kissinger once called Merkel a perfect expression of the times. That statement no longer rings true. Merkel changed with the refugee crisis. But the times have changed, too.

Merkels public persona — sober-minded, laborious, technocratic — has lost some of its appeal. For the first years of Merkels tenure, Germans were most worried about the state the economy. In speeches, she talked calmly about the need to preserve the countrys prosperity in an age of disruptive globalization.

But today people are fretting about other things. The political right is furious over the influx of refugees, and the left is up in arms over the rise of right-wing populism.

Merkels ability to rise above party lines — something most Germans used to see as an asset — has become a liability.

Merkels grand coalition is uncomfortably poised between unhappy conservatives who feel pressured from the right and unhappy Social Democrats who feel pressured from the left. The chancellor is stuck in the middle, no longer in charge.

Voters want to know what the mainstream parties stand for these days. Conservatives and Social Democrats need to resolve their political differences in meaningful debates rather than backroom compromises. Thats not going to happen in any grand coalition led by Merkel. Her ability to rise above party lines — something most Germans used to see as an asset — has become a liability.

And so, she should get ready to go. For the sake of the country, for the sake of the CDU. And for her own sake, too.

* * *

Today, létat, cest Merkel. But for how long? She has made the same mistake as her predecessors and overestimated her own importance.

Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, two of Germanys most prominent post-war chancellors, believed in the end “that anyone who had run the state as excellently as they had done should be identical with the state itself,” wrote biographer Kurbjuweit. “They didnt realize there were better candidates by then, and they missed the exit.”

Germans — and Merkel, too — need to realize that the country needs change | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

Even Merkels own people, who have been loyal for so long, are now expressing a desire for change. Brinkhaus, the new parliamentary leader, said that striving for “calm and stability” — thats code for Merkel politics — is no longer sufficient. The conservatives want, if not a revolution, at least renewal.

And yet, its not too late for a gracious goodbye. A majority of Germans still appreciate Merkel. Shes not universally liked anymore but shes still doing okay in popularity ratings. When the Sunday paper Welt am Sonntag asked ordinary Germans last week what they were most proud of, they listed Berlin, Mercedes cars and Angela Merkel.

Maybe the fact that shes long past her prime as chancellor hasnt sunk in yet. Some people — mostly on the left — admire her for what she did in 2015. Other people want her to stick around because they fear that instability might follow if she leaves.

Chances are that most people, here and abroad, would remember her fondly as one of Germanys great chancellors.

But Germans — and Merkel, too — need to realize that the country needs change. Badly. New elections would be the easiest way out. Maybe the conservatives could even benefit by a spell in opposition. Or maybe they just need someone else to lead yet another coalition government.

In any event, Merkel should prepare for a life outside the German chancellery. A moving farewell speech would be the perfect start. She should explain that she meant to leave earlier and that she just didnt have the strength to do so. Then she should say bye-bye and leave for her cottage in the Uckermark.

A couple of months later, after some time spent baking cakes and listening to the operas of Richard Wagner, she should apply for a top job in Brussels or with the United Nations in New York. She would get the job, too, no doubt.

Chances are that most people, here and abroad, would remember her fondly as one of Germanys great chancellors.

Konstantin Richter is a contributing writer at POLITICO. He is the author of the German-language novel, “The Chancellor: A Fiction,” about Angela Merkel and the refugee crisis.

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