Once a year, Chancellor Merkel takes part in the federal press conference and lets herself be pounded with critical questions. This time it’s also a farewell. “It was a pleasure,” said the Chancellor at the end.
Crisis Chancellor, Teflon Merkel, leader of the Free World – these are just three of the many descriptions for the Chancellor. Angela Merkel has now come to the big question and answer session at the federal press conference, like every year before her vacation. It will probably be the last time, there will be general election in September. What face would she show in these hour and a half?
There are a lot of basics to be heard, but also numbers, self-criticism and a few emotions. Even tips. And yes, she skilfully evades some questions: “That has to be worked through and then conclusions are drawn,” she says about better flood protection. Overall, she may present herself as the most complete Merkel that has ever existed.
“The balance sheets should be done by others and that will happen,” she says dryly when she is asked to evaluate her almost 16 years in office. But that’s just a moment. In others, however, she looks back to talk about mistakes and disappointments: “I am very at peace with myself, with my life and my biography.” That sounds a lot like goodbye. Because in autumn or winter, there will be a successor in the Chancellery.
With a magnifying glass
Merkel begins objectively. She speaks about the flood disaster and then appeals urgently to get vaccinated, and calls on people to help persuade them in their social environment. She skilfully describes the overall perspective with R-value, incidence and health system, but then she pulls out the magnifying glass. She looks at the football club, the neighborhood and families. “We can only regain normality as a community,” she says urgently. “A vaccination also protects someone you love.”
In this introduction she does not say a word about her departure, not a word about her chancellorship, not one about herself. That will change later. But not without asking.
Here at the Federal Press Conference politicians are invited to be questioned, they do not determine the questioners themselves. So if there is a stage to be honest, it is here. At this point, Merkel also said in 2015 what her time as head of government will help to define: “We can do it.” This sentence about refugee policy is a tone that shaped her time. Which she cultivates this time too: pragmatism for problem solving, always clearly in what feels like the center of the country.
Merkel made it crystal clear when she was asked a question about the division of society from the “New York Times” from the USA – where there is apparently downright admiration for the German monument to European politics. According to Merkel, the compromise is necessary to keep a society together. “Social coherence”, “Protecting people against risks”, “Maintaining the willingness to talk” – that is important. And she emphasizes one basic conviction: “Facts are facts (…) and they cannot be weighed against feelings.”
It works on the face
But at Merkel it is human, sometimes even clearly. Around then, when the first question is asked about a big mistake in environmental policy, with reference to the young generation in the country who are demanding faster changes.
It’s starting to work on her face. It feels even quieter in the hall, you could hear a pin drop. After several seconds, Merkel addressed a problem because she had not yet found an answer: How people in rural areas could participate in “the blessings” of climate policy so that their lives with wind turbines, solar parks and more would not deteriorate. Then there would also be less resistance in the necessary building projects for the energy transition. It sounds like an assignment to a successor.
Anyway, the climate policy. She, who worked as Minister of the Environment under Helmut Kohl, as a woman from the East, as a scientist, is being pitted with questions about the climate. On mistakes, actions, possible disagreements within the government. “My political life is characterized by work and measures against climate change,” said Merkel. “I’ve seen a lot of disappointments.”
But it is not the case that the Chancellor would only put the blame on others, on the contrary. The pace in Germany must be increased, she says several times. The justification for this is also typical: “The scientific evidence urges even more haste. We as politicians have to find majorities for this, that is our task.” Politics as an executive, not as a determinant.
She even criticizes the CDU’s own election program, which experts agree that it is not enough to achieve the German climate targets under the Paris Agreement. Merkel mentions the failed Kyoto Protocol with binding CO2-saving targets as a great disappointment, and criticizes that maybe she shouldn’t have held on to it for so long.
“Longing for Efficiency”
Whenever a question about guilt or moral responsibility is asked, the Chancellor answers argumentatively, citing facts and placing the focus on people. She emphasizes one number several times: When she took office there were five million unemployed and high youth unemployment, now there are three million, despite all the crises that were primarily caused internationally.
When Merkel is asked about the differences between women and men in politics, she formulates it with extreme caution. “There is a tendency,” she emphasizes, “women tend to have a longing for efficiency.” The tip is right. She considers the quota of women on company boards to be necessary because the voluntary commitment did not work.
But Merkel is not only asked about ratings, but also about her future. What are you going to do on election evening, September 26th at 6 p.m.? “I will be in contact with the party that is close to me”, she begins and after a murmur in the hall adds with a laugh, “and of which I am a member”.
And after your term of office? “I have already said something about this elsewhere.” During her trip to the US, Merkel spoke about it at Johns Hopkins University. She wanted to take a break and think, “what really interests me”, was her answer. “And then maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will close because I’m tired, then I’ll sleep a little, and then we’ll see.”
What will she miss? “What you miss you usually only notice when you no longer have it. That’s why it’s a question for later.” Then she smiles broadly, as if pleased with her short, disarming answer. When Merkel was adopted after about an hour and a half, things went even faster. “I say thank you, it was a pleasure for me.” She puts on her mouth and nose mask, gets up and leaves.