'Was She Ever Really a Reformer?'


(Erschienen im Nachrichtenmagazin "Newsweek", Ausgabe 29. Oktober 2007)

She was a Joan of Arc fighting the socialists in every political party. A German Margaret Thatcher. But Angela Merkel never took up the fight for a resurgence in sound economic and social policy. Instead, this would-be economic reformer slipped into a very different role as the pragmatic head of a grand coalition of Social and Christian Democrats. Now, rather than asking what is good policy, she asks what is doable. Rather than saying what she wants, she sells the smallest common denominator as the greatest possible success. Indeed Merkel has somehow arrived exactly where she was when she took over the chairmanship of the Christian Democrats seven years ago-as a woman without any discernible domestic-policy compass. 

How did this happen? Merkel was thrust into politics by Helmut Kohl shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, and for years after lived with the accusation that "Kohl`s girl" was hesitant and dithering. But in 2003, Merkel positioned herself so clearly in favor of a return to the free-market ideals upon which West Germany`s original economic miracle was founded that it left many of her own party´s establishment breathless. 

The new Merkel wanted her country to become a powerful player in the globalized world. A radically simplified tax code, a reformed welfare state and a competitive education and research system were the pillars of a bold concept that she called the "second founding" of the German economy. But the spirit of the campaigner retreated after the voters refused to hand her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), the election victory it expected. The party won a meager 35.2 percent of the vote, forcing it to forge a grand coalition with the center-left rather than the pro-market Free Democrats. 

A chancellor whose party has only two seats more in the Bundestag than the "smaller" coalition partner cannot rule with an iron fist. But the distance the present Merkel has put between herself and the radical reformer of once upon a time is best demonstrated by the fact that neither she nor her close associates make any pre-tense that there is another, more reformist, course that they might follow if they weren´t encumbered by the Social Democrats. And so the chancellor and the coalition bask in the light of a moderate economic upturn, sharply increased tax revenues and an unexpectedly broad decline in *unemployment.* That this is, more than anything, the fruit of a global boom and the restructuring of German companies is something the chancellor´s office would rather forget. 

Of course, Merkel´s coalition can take credit for a few things: the reduction in payroll levies, the reform of corporate taxation and the slow increase of the retirement age to 67. But one must ask two questions: Is Germany prepared for the challenge of global competition and an aging society any better today than under Gerhard Schröder? And would our welfare state be able to deal better with the shock of a recession and rising unemployment? Unfortunately, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding no. Apparently the German chancellor is animated more by the calculus of power than by the passion of reform. Was she ever really a reformer-or did she slip into the role of a German Thatcher because it seemed to offer more promise than a "me too" platform? In her heart, she is likely holding on to her reform goals. But it hardly matters now. She has coolly decided in favor of the doable, and of power. 

Müller-Vogg is the author of "Angela Merkel-My Way," a political columnist for the German tabloid Bild and former publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 

PRESSESTIMMEN (Süddeutsche Zeitung)





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