Germany’s Iron Lady is more like Bertie Ahern than Margaret Thatcher

MANY Irish people, it seems, regard Angela Merkel — the German chancellor as near as certain as to returned to power after the German federal elections on Sunday — to be the modern day version of Margaret Thatcher. And, by extension, like her as much, regarding each as hostile to the interests of the Irish.

Germany’s Iron Lady is more like Bertie Ahern than Margaret Thatcher

It may be an ignorant supposition, based on easy cliché and limited information.

About all that they had in common was being females in power, succeeding in what is normally the domain of males. They also held it for a long time: Merkel will surpass Thatcher’s longevity in office soon. After that, they are different, very different.

Thatcher was an ideologue, firmly committed to what are known as right wing economic and social values, determined to imprint her harsh vision on the political landscape, not suffering anyone she regards as fools gladly and steamrolling those who provide opposition. Think of the coal miners as an example.

There are those who would say that describes Merkel too, as this 21st century “Iron Lady” ensures that the EU imposes austerity upon Ireland and Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy too, insisting that they move towards “balanced budgets”, irrespective of the consequences for employment, income and living standards in those countries. Think of the coal miners, except that the numbers involved are a multiple of those from all walks of life. Everyone is suffering a woman seemingly unyielding to contrary argument, uncaring as to the consequences of her decisions, unwilling to comprise.

That, however, may be a simplistic and incorrect appraisal of Merkel as a person and of her politics. Reading extensively about Merkel over the last week the same and similar characteristics are repeated constantly in newspaper articles: unpretentious, efficient, pragmatic, plain, organised, successful, arrogant, frugal, sombre, unpolished, awkward, slow-moving, cautious, dominant, authoritarian.

She believes in gradual change, if any at all, often accused of doing nothing if it involves risk. “When she is in doubt or gets conflicting advice, her instinct is often to do nothing,” wrote one commentator.

She has been accused of stealing her big domestic ideas from political rivals on the left, not because she believes in them but because she wanted to rob rivals of a way of winning votes. It is called “merkelvellianism” by her opponents, who say she is a political plagiarist lacking any conviction.

Although she is vehemently against the idea of raising taxes, she prepared for this year’s election with concessions such as declaring herself open to rent controls, a minimum wage and higher pensions for mothers. The bold domestic changes, such as vowing to give up all nuclear power by 2022 after the 2011 disaster at Fukushima in Japan, or dropping compulsory military service, were robbed from the opposition too.

The funniest description I found was this: “Living in a country run by her is like driving endlessly round a roundabout — few fender benders but also no direction; her finger doesn’t point the way but only measures which way the wind is blowing: and so forth.”

Her speeches are uninspiring, to put it mildly, full of soothing tones and simple, reassuring phrases which often have little content. English historian Timothy Garton Ash has described them as a “sanitised Lego language, snapping together prefabricated phrases made of hollow plastic”.

While her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a centre-right party, is likely to get about 40% of the overall vote, about 85% of people are happy for Merkel to remain as chancellor, according to polls. Germans, for obvious reasons of 20 personalities ruling over their political parties. Merkel though has complete control of her party almost through osmosis. Merkel has become the nation’s “mutti” or mummy. Nobody in Britain ever said that about Thatcher.

You might think that the German election campaign would have been dominated by talk of the euro. Not at all, apparently. It is an issue but a relatively minor one. Germany does not have the problems many of its fellow EU members share. The economy is booming, largely because of the sale of industrial goods to China, also too because of exports benefiting from the existence of the euro.

Tax revenues are pouring in so fast that the government expects to start paying down debt from 2015. It has the lowest youth unemployment in Europe. The Germans don’t attribute any of this to luck, but to their own good judgment and frugality.

This is why the Germans are happy with the hard line Merkel seems to have taken towards using German money to help out the indigent EU southerners.

If anything they worry that she has been a bit soft with the Greeks but apart from one glitch last year — when the Irish thought she had opened the door to retrospective bank recapitalisation — she has protected German interests as best she can.

While we resent her approach to the euro crisis it is supported in Germany: financial assistance has to be conditional on tough economic and social reforms.

When it comes to EU policy it is suggested Merkel learned from her mentor Helmut Kohl — hold out on making a decision for as long possible then leap, at the last minute, onto whichever train is moving in the popular direction. And then claim that she had always been aboard that.

The more I read of her the more she seems to resemble Bertie Ahern. Her approach to winning this election is so like how Fianna Fáil lulled the electorate into its 2002 victory.

The relevance of that to our situation now? Well there are those who hope that once safely re-elected — and the only real question to be answered is who Merkel shares her coalition with — Merkel will be more tolerant of our requests, especially when it comes to a necessary refund of the money we invested in our banks. The consequences could be so important to us and other European states struggling under the yoke of austerity.

The omens do not seem good given that Merkel is seen as an incrementalist. But perhaps once returned to power Merkel might just jump upon the train that favours easing austerity and providing funds to sorting out the banks. Merkel has cited these figures previously: Europe has 7% of the world’s population, 25% of its output and 50% of its welfare spending. She believes that fiscal incontinence by governments is at the root of the euro crisis.

She believes in the German way of dealing with things and is not going to engage in measures that will not be popular politically in her home country.

Here’s a chilling quote that appeared last weekend, attributed to her in 2008 at the time of her banking crisis. “She made it quite clear that Germany takes care of Germany and its interests first, then the rest,” one confidant was quoted as saying of her at the time. “Her argument was, ‘we take care of our money and the Irish can take place of theirs.” Therein lies one of the big unsolved problems of the euro, the single currency that is shared between its member countries, but which does not take individual needs into account and leads to decisions favouring some countries over others.

Each government head thinks to put her or his country’s needs first. That is not a surprise. To expect Merkel not to put Germany first would be naïve of us.

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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