Leader Too Long?

Germany’s long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel has been riding high for many years. Widely admired for her political skills, and deeply appreciated for her beneficent temperament, she has been Europe’s paramount leader for well over a decade. Especially given Brexit, and France’s one-time boy wonder, President Emmanuel Macron’s failure to live up to his original promise, Merkel was the only one among Europe’s leaders whose reputation remained untarnished. This is not to say that she was perfect. She was faulted for some of her politics and policies. But, given the difficulties of leading in 21st century liberal democracies, she led exceptionally well.  On every level – political, professional, and personal – she stood out among her peers.

Her winning streak continued throughout 2020, the first year of the pandemic. Merkel was heralded – by me, among others – for her strong performance during the worst of the COVID crisis. In striking contrast to the United States and Great Britain, Germany did well, capitalizing on its prototypical efficiency, and its excellent health care system, to keep the rate of infections, and the number of deaths, relatively low. Moreover, Germans felt fortunate to have at the helm Merkel, who had the unusual attribute of having trained as a scientist before she entered politics.

But when the vaccines came the game changed. Arguably for the first time in her political career, Merkel made a series of serious missteps and so was caught flatfooted. By hitching Germany’s fortunes to those of the European Union, by letting Brussels take the lead rather than controlling vaccine acquisition and distribution from Berlin, she sacrificed German efficiency for the sake of European unity – and it has cost her dearly. Germany, like France, Italy, and other members of the EU are now far behind the United States and, ironically, also Great Britain, in getting their populations that much touted shot in the arm. Ironically, Merkel proved a good leader last year and, so far anyway, a poor manager this one.

Months ago, Merkel announced that after sixteen years in office she will leave the German chancellery this fall. Her recent missteps will not, then, impede her political future. But if Germany’s vaccine rollout continues compromised, it could impede her political legacy. Germans have already been harsh in their judgement. The Financial Times quoted one politician from the port city of Rostock, who summarized the nation’s frustration, “We are the laughingstock of the world. Germany was supposed to be world champion at organizing things and look at us.”  

As I write, only about 11 percent of Germans have received one dose of a vaccine, in contrast to, for example, 45 percent of people in the United Kingdom. A big difference – which has already shown up in public opinion polls. In February, 43% of Germans reported being dissatisfied with their government; one month later this number climbed to 55%.

The reasons for the disillusions are more than just mismanagement of the vaccine rollout. They include issues of corruption and unfairness, of inconsistencies and related reversals. One week everything allowed to be open; the next week everything, every shop, every restaurant, everyplace else, required to be closed. True to her character, Merkel has taken personal responsibility for many of the mistakes. She has apologized more than once not in her own political interest, but to spare her party being blamed for what she prefers to consider the errors of her ways.

There is an additional problem, which is that the pandemic uncovered some of Germany’s longstanding inefficiencies. In a speech to parliament last week, Merkel admitted that the pandemic had exposed “grave weaknesses” in the federal bureaucracy, above all a lack of adequate progress on digitalization. “As a federal system,” she said, “we must get better and faster. We know that and are working on it.”

Something somewhat sad, perhaps, about Europe’s most experienced crisis manager acknowledging that on her long watch progress in an area of paramount importance had lagged. But, also, something uplifting about watching the leader of one of the world’s great democracies assuming responsibility for what went wrong.

So far the Chancellor’s stature remains largely intact. But she is on thin ice or, at least, ice a lot thinner now than six months ago. Which raises these questions: Is Merkel now less sure-footed than she was? Are Merkel’s political instincts now less sharp than they were? Did Merkel stay in her leadership post too long?

I wish Angela Merkel well – she is a remarkable woman who generally has been an exemplary leader. I just hope that her political acumen and acuity do not diminish, for whatever reason, in the home stretch.  

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