Demon or demonised?

Anti-Angela Merkel sentiment in the European press is turning increasingly nasty, but despite the pressure she is under, those close to her say she is not for turning as she sets her sights on re-election, writes Madeline Chambers

DEMONISED in Europe’s media as a red-eyed Terminator robot, a flabby centre-fold pin-up and a fleshy Roman god eating Greeks, German chancellor Angela Merkel has become the subject of a new wave of vitriol for her tough stance on the eurozone crisis.

Already a figure of hate in Greece for insisting on austerity in exchange for aid, Merkel has long endured montages of herself in a Nazi uniform, but the run-up to this week’s EU summit has unleashed particularly savage images and headlines.

Politicians from Paris to Washington are piling pressure on Merkel, leader of Europe’s biggest economy, to solve the debt crisis which threatens to derail the global economy.

But ‘Frau Nein’ shows little sign of giving ground on such issues as mutualising Europe’s debt or slashing public spending — not least because her approach has boosted her popularity among German voters in the countdown to next year’s election.

Britain’s left-wing New Statesman magazine last week splashed an image of Merkel as the Terminator with a glistening robotic eye and Arnold Schwarzenegger-style black jacket on its front cover under the headline: “Europe’s most dangerous leader” (pictured right).

In an article arguing that Merkel’s “mania for austerity” is destroying Europe, senior editor Mehdi Hasan characterised her as a greater danger to global prosperity and order than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

“Merkel is the most dangerous German leader since Hitler” wrote Hasan, adding that under her leadership Germany, Europe’s paymaster, was isolated, loathed, and feared in equal measure.

It may be a British tradition to poke fun at Germans, but the tone has turned nasty, even in some mainstream publications.

The UK centrist Independent daily newspaper earlier this year published a reproduction of Goya’s painting of ‘Saturn devouring his son’ showing a wild-eyed Merkel, with a Greek flag as a bib, devouring a Greek.

Unsurprisingly, Spain, which this month said it would request European aid for its banks after weeks of pressure from Berlin, has joined the anti-Merkel chorus.

Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves renamed its last issue Die Jueven to sound German. Its front page carried a caricature of a rotund Merkel squashing Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and stepping on him like a doormat.

Inside Merkel is featured as a centre-fold pinup, after being crowned ‘Miss Spain 2012’. Wearing blue heels and a swimsuit, she looks flabby and haggard and is weeping with joy at her luck at being named the most beautiful woman in Spain.

The influential Economist weekly has also targeted Merkel with a cover picture of a sinking ship labelled “The World Economy” hurtling towards the sea floor with the caption: “Please can we start the engines now, Mrs Merkel?”

In Greece, where memories of wartime atrocities committed by Nazis run deep, she has faced a media onslaught ever since she first showed her reluctance to bail out Athens. Newspapers have printed computer-generated images of an evil-looking Merkel in a Nazi uniform and earlier this year furious protestors even burned German flags.

Merkel’s allies have rallied round, saying she can withstand the attacks and will not be swayed by provocative headlines.

“I am not worried [about Merkel’s image abroad] because the characterisation of the chancellor can be explained by her support for something other than simple, popular demands,” said Michael Grosse-Broemer, chief whip of Merkel’s conservatives.

“I think some emotionally-driven judgements about this great chancellor are off the mark.”

Yet the pressure is starting to show. There is no denying 57-year- old Merkel looks weary and she has visibly gained weight in the last few months.

Some seasoned German reporters who regularly accompany the chancellor on trips say she has grown tetchy with the media and unusually she gave no full media briefing after this month’s G20 summit of world leaders in Mexico.

When US President Barack Obama asked Merkel how she was at the G20 summit, she merely shrugged her shoulders.

But people who know the chancellor say they are not worried.

“She has strong nerves and a thick skin,” said Merkel biographer and political scientist Gerd Langguth.

“She may look a bit tired but she’s not put off by the whirlwind around her, she is very controlled and will not change her policies on account of such headlines,” he added.

It is little wonder Merkel insisted on taking a break last week to see Germany clinch a predictable soccer victory in Euro 2012 over Greece in a highly charged game.

Merkel looked at her most relaxed for months as she jumped from her seat and punched the air when the Germans scored.

However, even that respite caused some thinly-veiled criticism from French President François Hollande after she ordered talks with him and their Spanish and Italian counterparts be brought forward so she could attend the game.

And traditional soccer rivalry gave way to a personal vendetta in the Italian media ahead of the country’s clash with Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-finals last night.

In truth, Merkel is in a bind. She cannot please all her international partners and her domestic voters at the same time. “The most important thing for Merkel is getting re-elected, that is obviously her main focus,” said Langguth.

So far, she is doing well on that front, riding high in polls. Voters, who have in the last decade tightened their belts and until now accepted restrained wage rises, are fed up with paying for what they see as profligate eurozone states.

Playing to the domestic audience and signalling she is prepared to dig in her heels, Merkel told members of her Free Democrat coalition partners on Tuesday, Europe would not see mutualised debt, or euro bonds, “as long as I live”.

Yet critics say even at this late stage, Merkel lacks the strategic vision to get Europe back on track.

US billionaire George Soros this week described Merkel’s position as shortsighted, arguing Germany was missing a chance to become a benevolent sponsor of southern Europe as the US was for Europe after 1945 with the Marshall Plan.

“Merkel has realised that the euro is not working, but she cannot change the narrative she has created because that narrative has caught the imagination of the German public, and the German public has accepted it,” Soros told Spiegel Online.

Her allies say she is not alone in the eurozone discussions as some richer northern states also support her tough position. They also argue that critics from abroad fail to appreciate the parliamentary and constitutional restraints she is under.

The German constitutional court has ruled several times to boost the say of Germany’s parliament in eurozone affairs, slowing down the decision-making process.

Ironically, it was the US and Britain which imposed this political system of checks and balances on Germany after 1945 to avoid a repeat of Hitler’s dictatorship.

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