Angela Merkel's Unfinished Business

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Zhang Fan / Chine Nouvelle / Sipa

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets her supporters outside a studio ahead of the TV debate in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 1, 2013.

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At 18, Merkel nearly came unstuck. At the end of each school term, GDR pupils performed cultural programs. In a "snap decision" that Moock says arose from boredom rather than a desire to shock, Merkel's class opted to sing "The Internationale," the hymn of the workers' struggle, not in German or Russian but in English. The pupils compounded this sign of nascent dissidence by reading a poem containing the phrase "the wall." It wasn't in reference to the fortifications that at the time divided Germany, but it was still enough to trigger a weeklong interrogation of the whole class by the Stasi, the feared secret police. The authorities initially withdrew Merkel's permission to take a degree in physical chemistry. Her father had to work every possible contact to enable his daughter to study.

Slow and Steady
Merkel and her main challenger, the SPD's Steinbrück, have confronted each other directly only once during this campaign, in a televised debate on Sept. 1. The most revealing moment came when Steinbrück accused Merkel of waiting too long for Washington to provide information on the scale of the NSA's spying activities. She smiled — she has learned to smile — before saying, "I don't act first and consider later, but do it the other way round."

Merkel prefers to avoid speedy decisions, and not just because of her formative tangle with the Stasi. There was a damaging flip-flop on nuclear power in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, when she reversed her decision to prolong the life of some facilities and ordered their accelerated closure.

She's also haunted by the Deauville debacle. At a summit at the French seaside resort in 2010, she and France's then President Nicolas Sarkozy made a pact to make investors holding bonds in any country requesting a bailout accept a share of the losses. This was meant to mitigate the burden on the taxpayers funding the bailouts — top of the list, German taxpayers — but instead raised the specter that euro-zone countries might actually default. The euro plunged into a new spiral of pain.

The usual Merkel style of decisionmaking is methodical. "She goes at it like a physicist," says Dirk Kurbjuweit, a journalist with the weekly Der Spiegel and the author of a Merkel biography. "She wants to solve problems. The bigger the problem, the bigger the chance of a Nobel Prize."

The biggest problem on Merkel's plate is Europe's debt crisis, but her handling of it has won as many brickbats as prizes, not least in Washington. In July 2012, facing his own re-election battle and watching the travails of the euro zone damage the U.S. recovery, President Obama dispatched Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to persuade Merkel to apply short-term stimulus. Before embarking for Germany, Geithner described Europe as being "on the edge of an abyss." He came away without fresh concessions.

Amid signs of a recovery in some hard-hit European countries, Merkel continues to resist pressure to mutualize euro-zone debt to reduce borrowing costs for weaker countries and stands by the doctrine of austerity that has seen unemployment spiraling upward in those same countries. "She [has driven] Europe into greater divisions and damaged the European project," says Andrea Nahles, the general secretary of the SPD.

Angry Greeks who have caricatured Merkel as a new incarnation of Hitler would presumably agree. But their demonization of the German leader betrays a misapprehension: a change of Chancellor in Berlin would not necessarily herald the arrival of a more openhanded Germany.

By waiting until the abyss yawns before taking action, Merkel has succeeded in carrying most of Germany with her when she makes a move. A small Euroskeptic party called the Alternative für Deutschland may win its first seats in the election, but the European policies of the mainstream parties are closely aligned. In Parliament and among voters, there is broad recognition that Germany's export-driven economy is dependent on the survival of the euro zone — never mind that German liabilities through bailout commitments already amount to $153 billion and could have the country on the hook for as much as $280 billion if the single currency implodes. Any German government will inch toward greater European integration to prevent the disintegration of the euro. And any German government will also find it hard to speed the process or take any significant steps toward surrendering sovereign powers to Brussels.

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