The chancellor acted quickly and decisively at the European level, too. There, the pandemic opened up old resentments between north and south, as Italy in particular sought financial and medical assistance some northern countries appeared unwilling to give. It looked like the European Union could unravel. “I believe she understood that this could be Europe’s end,” Mr. Gabriel said. “She knew that if she didn’t act, member states in need would look for help outside Europe — and China was fired up and ready to step in.”
And that’s what she did. For years, the chancellor was criticized for doing too little to speed up Europe’s integration. But on May 18, Ms. Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron of France proposed an ambitious recovery fund. They suggested that the European Commission should borrow 500 billion euros, $545 billion, from the financial markets and distribute them to member states in need. “This,” said Mr. Gabriel, who served as foreign minister under Ms. Merkel, “was a paradigm shift.”
The backlash from northern nations like Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden was enormous. The negotiations drag on. But Ms. Merkel’s position is clear. “It is very much in all the member states’ own interests to maintain a strong European internal market,” she noted dryly in a recent interview, “and to stand united on the world stage.” In other words: She saw that the crisis was a great opportunity to overcome reservations about deeper European integration, both in Germany and the continent, and jumped at it.
Most surprising, however, is how Ms. Merkel has successfully managed to connect with Germany’s citizens. In previous crises, she’s had to convince her party or other world leaders. This time, it was the German people.
That could have been tricky. It’s established wisdom that Ms. Merkel struggles to relate to people: The very character traits people cherish most in her — her reliability, her diligence, her levelheadedness — also create a sense of distance. Her demeanor is soothing, but at times impermeable and impersonal. She’s the chancellor through and through. “There is only one Angela Merkel,” Mr. Braun, her chief of staff, told me. “Behind the scenes, she’s exactly what she’s like in public.”
So it came as a surprise when, on March 18, Ms. Merkel spoke directly and frankly to the German people in a televised speech. The chancellor, by general agreement not a gifted orator, only holds one televised speech a year, on New Year’s Eve. But whether it was what she said that evening — she invoked World War II — or simply the unusual format, it did the trick. For once, Angela Merkel reached the hearts and minds of Germany’s citizens.
Before the pandemic, with a healthy economy and the government boasting a surplus of €19 billion, over $21 billion, Ms. Merkel was criticized for not doing enough. She wasn’t leading her country and Europe; she was merely managing them. The criticism now seems excessive. As Germany held its breath during those terrifying weeks of lockdown, it saw Angela Merkel afresh. No longer overcautious and hesitant, she was instead the duteous and utterly capable leader who was there when her country needed her most.
Not that she seems to care much about her new popularity. “When you’re in politics,” she said last month, “you just have to adjust to new realities and situations. That’s our job.”
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