quinta-feira, 2 de junho de 2016
Angela Merkel, the roman à clef / Stranger than fiction: the German chancellor’s precipitous rise and fall on migration.
Angela Merkel, the roman à clef
Stranger than fiction: the German chancellor’s precipitous rise and fall on migration.
By KONSTANTIN RICHTER 6/2/16, 5:34 AM CET
The day-to-day workings of German politics aren’t made for prime-time entertainment. We don’t have too many Shakespearean characters among our elected officials. There’s no genuine villainy, no true drama, no comic relief. But once in a while, things do get interesting in Berlin. Angela Merkel’s travails over the past year could be the stuff of a gripping novel.
Analysts see Merkel as a super-rational politician who doesn’t let feelings get in the way. A writer would certainly think otherwise. The best works of political fiction — the recent TV series “Borgen” and “House of Cards” come to mind — are compelling because they portray leaders as ordinary humans, emotional and fallible. A novelist would likely do what journalists and commentators can’t: He’d cast Merkel as a pragmatist who, for once, listens to her heart, tries to do things differently — and fails.
The plot lines are obvious. When the chancellor opens the borders to thousands of refugees, she takes the Germans (and everyone else) by surprise. Until then, Merkel had been considered a realist — hard-working and efficient — but not a visionary. That changed in a matter of days. All of a sudden, people call her a saint, the Mother Teresa of global politics. She is tipped for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Merkel runs into mounting opposition and, eventually, changes tack. Although she never says so explicitly, the German government has, in effect, reversed its open-door policy, imposing border controls and initiating a controversial deal with Turkey to stem the migrant flow. Merkel appears to be back to her old self. The difference is she’s no longer as popular as before.
The Germans don’t know what to make of their leader anymore. You can tell by her approval ratings. The woman who won the country’s hearts and minds may soon be on her way out.
It’s the kind of rise-and-fall story everyone loves to read.
* * *
Chapter 1: Revelation in Rostock
Let’s give our novel a title: Die Kanzlerin. The novelist will need a strong opening scene to draw readers in. He picks Merkel’s famous meeting with a Palestinian refugee in the Hanseatic city of Rostock. The girl is 14 years old. Her family faces deportation. Merkel, coolly, tells her that Germany cannot accept all asylum applications.
“Politics can be hard sometimes,” she says, a statement that reflects her own experience as a longtime politician. The writer pauses to show, in a series of flashbacks, how Merkel became Merkel. She is, at that point, midway into her third term as chancellor, and she’s emotionally hardened by years of governing a people who fear nothing so much as change. Merkel has learnt not to rock the boat.
When the pretty Palestinian bursts into tears, Merkel is visibly shaken. Awkwardly, she pats the girl on the shoulder. The Merkel epiphany, the novelist might call it: The moment the chancellor realizes she cannot go on with politics-as-usual. For so many years — Merkel says to herself as she rests her hand on the girl’s hair — she accumulated power. She’s never tested its limits. Now she’s ready to give it a go.
* * *
Chapter 2: Sing a happy tune
A few weeks later, Europe faces a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of refugees are stranded in Hungary, and Merkel jumps into action, working the phones. “Yes, yes,” she says in her German-accented English. “You send them here and we call them welcome!”
There’s an element of comedy to the scene, as Merkel experiences her second spring. Baffled aides wonder what tune their boss is humming during morning briefings. It’s “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. In Munich, young Germans cheer arriving refugees. In Berlin, Merkel tells her security personnel to get lost and strolls through the Tiergarten, singing: “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”
The novelist would pay special attention to Merkel’s language. She used to be known for her foggy rhetoric — a device, some say, to keep people guessing. Now, she speaks loudly and clearly. “We can manage,” she declares. And then, directed at those who really don’t want to manage: “If we have to apologize for showing a friendly face to people in need, this is not my country!”
Happiness makes Merkel dizzy to the point of carelessness. Stupidly, she fails to coordinate her policy with EU partners or German lawmakers. Then, in a television interview, she says that in today’s globalized world, borders cannot be closed anymore. The statement shocks her party’s conservative base. She has drastically changed her tune.
Merkel’s critics used to call her the perfect leader for angst-ridden Germans because she lulled them into a false sense of security. No longer. She wants to speak truth to the people. For the first time in her life, she feels truly liberated. Merkel unbound.
* * *
Chapter 3: Bavarian bust-up
Enter our next protagonist. Let’s not have an outright villain — let’s have Horst Seehofer. He and Merkel are erstwhile allies, but lately he has become increasingly irate. They schedule a confidential meeting in the Taschenbergpalais hotel in Dresden, half-way between Berlin and Munich.
Merkel, still high on Willkommenskultur-adrenalin, misjudges the Bavarian premier’s mood. She tells him what her open-border policy has done for Germany’s image abroad. “I’m in the running for the Peace Prize, Horst,” she says, laughing and somewhat proud. “You know what the people call me in the Middle East? They call me the Angel of Light!”
Seehofer has no time for banter. Thousands of refugees arrive every day — and they cross the border right into Bavaria, a bastion of German conservatism. Bavaria is where the late Franz Josef Strauss vowed there “shall be no party to the political right of the CSU.” It’s his goddamn duty to keep voters who might otherwise vote for the far-right AfD happy, Seehofer tells Merkel. And she’s making his life miserable.
Merkel shrugs off his warnings. Seehofer loses it. He calls her policy a “rule of injustice,” and worse. Let’s see them have a proper fight here. Swearing. Slamming doors. Meissen china shattered to pieces. Exit Seehofer.
Merkel, bewildered, steps onto the balcony and looks at the beautiful city of Dresden below her. Let’s assume for the sake of drama that an angry crowd of protesters happens to pass by the hotel. Unaware that they are being watched by the chancellor, they hurl a stream of invective at her. “Traitor to the people,” they shout. Public opinion, Merkel suddenly realizes, has shifted. Hiding behind the balustrade, she wonders for the first time: “Is this still my country?”
Then she picks herself up and says: “Oh well, we’ll find out soon enough. Something’s going to happen, one way or the other.” This is pure artistic license, of course. The writer needs a transition to what’s coming next. We’re talking New Year’s Eve, we’re talking Cologne.
* * *
Chapter 4: Where’s the love?
Was there a specific point in time when Merkel changed her mind and decided to backtrack? In real life, we don’t know. In fiction, we can.
During a morning briefing in early January, Merkel gets the news that hundreds of young men assaulted women in front of Cologne Cathedral. She tells aides that she wants a copy of every police report. One detail, in particular, holds her attention. A perpetrator tells officers, “You have to treat me nicely. Frau Merkel invited me.”
The quote is widely circulated in German and international media. Merkel’s aides giggle — they think it’s kind of funny. Merkel doesn’t. She knows the Germans well enough. They can be a generous people. But they hate nothing more than being taken for a ride.
Merkel leaves the chancellery early that day. At home, she takes an aspirin, goes straight to bed. Then, shortly past midnight, she wakes up, and her mind is racing. She thinks of the Syrians back in September, holding up their “We love you, Miss Merkel” signs in the warm autumn sun.
How can something that felt so good turn out so badly? She didn’t do anything wrong, did she?
Lying there, staring at the ceiling — her husband, Joachim Sauer, fast asleep next to her — Merkel feels let down by everyone. Fellow EU leaders (unwilling to share the burden), CDU colleagues (scheming to get rid of her), the German people (petty-minded and xenophobic). Now, even the refugees seem to be losing respect for her. This can’t go on, she decides. Willkommenskultur needs to come to an end.
* * *
Chapter 5: Anchor down in Ankara
It’s March, and Merkel is going through the motions. When Austria and other countries decide to shut down the Balkan route, she protests — meekly. Truth be told, Merkel, German chancellor and TIME magazine’s Person of the Year 2015, doesn’t care anymore. Feeling empty and drained, she calls her mother. “You need to pull yourself together,” her mother — a Lutheran pastor’s wife, after all — tells her. Not knowing what else to do, Merkel goes back to her old routine: Define a goal, then figure out how to get there.
To Merkel, any solution to the refugee crisis must involve Turkey. There’s no alternative, she says. Classic Merkel. The problem is just that post-open-door-policy-Merkel has lost her political acumen. Turning to Turkey for help, she makes herself dependent on someone whom she shouldn’t trust.
Our novelist must turn his attention to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now. Is he the villain we’ve been waiting for? A madman, taking a bath in his new €500 million palace on the outskirts of Ankara and yelling at his underlings, “If the EU doesn’t bow to our demands, send them boatloads of refugees!” (There’s a long tradition of oriental villains in European literature.) Or would it be smarter to go with something more subtle? To show that Erdoğan is under pressure himself, a would-be-strongman who has no choice but to prey on Merkel’s weaknesses.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. As far as the writer is concerned, Erdoğan is only a kind of tragic foil. He’s there to illustrate how far Merkel has fallen. Just this once in her life, she tried her hand at idealism. It didn’t work. But going back to pragmatism is tough, and Merkel is paying the price.
The story comes to a close at this point. Knowing that the real Merkel isn’t finished, our novelist will opt for an ambiguous ending. Merkel may still recover, he suggests, she may even get reelected. But one thing is for sure: She’ll never be the same glorious chancellor she was back in September when the world called her the Angel of Light.
In the last pages of Die Kanzlerin Merkel returns from another humiliating meeting with Erdoğan. On business trips, an entourage of aides and journalists typically crowd around her. Not this time. She’s alone, traveling at high altitude, thinking of the tune she liked so much just a few months ago. What was it again? Ah yes, “Happy.”
Merkel’s plane takes the Balkan route and crosses into German airspace. Peering out impassively, she decides that the song was wrong after all. Happiness is not the truth.
Konstantin Richter, a German novelist and journalist, is a contributing writer at POLITICO. He is the author of “Bettermann” and “Kafka was Young and He Needed the Money.”