With the German election a fortnight away, and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union enjoying a commanding lead, you might suppose the German Chancellor would be tempted to play safe and keep her head down. However as Theresa May has shown, that’s a risky strategy for an incumbent. Far better to come out fighting, take the battle to your opponents – and choose the ground upon which you wish to fight. Merkel’s favourite battleground has always been foreign policy, and with her conservative CDU on course for a resounding victory, yesterday’s interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung gives the clearest outline so far of what her priorities will be when she returns for a fourth term as Chancellor in two weeks’ time.
Yesterday Russia was in her sights, specifically Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Isn’t that old news? Not for Merkel. Other politicians may have accepted the Russian occupation as a regrettable reality (Christian Lindner, the leader of Germany’s Free Democrats, called it ‘provisionally permanent’) but for Merkel it’s unfinished business. What if everyone had simply accepted the situation in East Germany, she said. That personal comparison shows how much this issue means to Merkel. Raised in Communist East Germany, Merkel entered politics when the Berlin Wall came down. The liberation of the Eastern bloc was the defining event of her adult life. ‘It was an incredible victory for democracy to stand up to the Soviet Union and put an end to the Cold War,’ she said, after becoming Chancellor in 2005. ‘I’d like to make my own contribution by helping freedom and human rights spread throughout the world. We have the tools to do it.’ Since Russia invaded Crimea, Merkel’s main tool has been sanctions – and despite protests from German exporters, she’s refused to budge.
This is revealing with regard to Brexit. Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson have argued that Germany won’t want to damage its economic interests by resisting a flexible trade deal for Britain. Merkel’s intransigence regarding Russian sanctions suggests such optimism may be misplaced. On points of principle (as she sees them) she’s quite willing to cut off her nose to spite her face. Another smoke signal for Brexit watchers is Merkel’s call for EU members to maintain a united front. ‘The world has to see that member states won’t deviate from a European consensus,’ she said. Again, the subtext is clear. Anyone hoping that the British government can sidestep the European Commission and deal with Merkel (or Macron) directly is surely guilty of wishful thinking. Meeting the numerous challenges facing Europe demands solidarity among EU members, she said. ‘No ifs and buts.’ In the Brexit negotiations, as in all other matters, Merkel is determined that the EU should speak with a single voice.
So what are we to make of this more forthright Merkel? Actually, it’s a change of style rather than a change of tack. Merkel’s open-door policy during the immigration crisis made her a bogeywoman in Britain, but this calamitous mistake was out of character. ‘I am afraid that open societies in the post Cold War world are in more danger than we realise,’ she once said. ‘Sometimes, my greatest fear is that we have somehow lost the inner strength to stand up for our way of life.’ Did Merkel endanger Germany’s open society by letting in a million immigrants? Germany’s new anti-immigration party, Alternative fur Deutschland, certainly think so. However the question voters will answer on 24 September is which political leader is best equipped to deal with the crises facing Germany. And even if some of these crises are of her own making, Angela Merkel still looks like the best leader – by far – to meet that test.