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Merkel’s Moment Arrives as Virus Tests Leaders’ Grasp of Facts

Arne Delfs and Patrick Donahue

(Bloomberg) -- When Angela Merkel says it’s serious, Germans know by now that she means it.

Merkel’s speech on the unparalleled threat posed by the coronavirus was the first crisis address to the nation of her more than 14 years in office. How the German public responds to her plea for solidarity will likely determine history’s view of her chancellorship.

Recorded in the Chancellery in central Berlin Wednesday, the camera pointing east toward the Bundestag over what was no-man’s land during the Cold War, Merkel gave an address whose very starkness was underlined by her deadpan delivery. “This is serious,” she said. “Take it seriously.”

In an age of disdain for experts, fake news and the rise of populist leaders with simplistic solutions to complex problems, Merkel’s matter-of-fact, scientist’s approach to problems appears almost a relic of a bygone age. Yet it may prove to be her most important quality in reassuring Germans and persuading them to adhere to strict guidelines meant to halt the spread of Covid-19.

The Corona epidemic marks the first time in more than 70 years of German postwar history when people are confronted with a crisis with the potential to destroy the country’s social fabric. At this critical moment, Merkel appears like a stroke of luck since she is trusted more than any other politician, according to Ulrich Sarcinelli, a political scientist at the University of Koblenz-Landau. Her rational approach seems appropriate in a completely unpredictable situation such as this, he said.

“She is almost acting like a doctor who prescribes her patients medication, but who also makes clear that things will get worse if they don’t take this medication,” Sarcinelli said in a phone interview. “People clearly want a leader with her experience.”

Substance over style

A physicist who turned to politics in the turmoil of the collapse of East Germany, rising to become both Germany’s first woman chancellor and its first from the former communist east, Merkel, 65, is an atypical politician. She doesn’t dissemble, she has little desire to influence media narratives, doesn’t use a Twitter account and conveys her messages unadorned. Not for her the kind of soaring rhetoric deployed by Barack Obama or Emmanuel Macron.

But that very solidity and preference for substance over style makes her a good leader to have in this kind of crisis. She is at ease among the statistics, science and medical fact of a pandemic, especially when compared to fellow leaders like U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has a history of being economical with the truth, or President Donald Trump, who favors his own gut instinct over the advice of his staff.

To help her, Merkel has a chief of staff, Helge Braun, who is a trained doctor. During the crisis, she heeds the advice of the Robert Koch Institute, which is leading the scientific fight against the virus.

And yet until just a week ago, the general view was that Merkel was too much in the background. It was a March 11 press conference that brought her to the fore.

Back Seat

Merkel took a back seat in the first phase of the crisis, after Health Minister Jens Spahn announced the beginning of an epidemic on Feb. 26. While acknowledging the critique of Merkel, two people familiar with talks within the party attributed the chancellor’s distance to a distribution of labor with Spahn, whose performance she lauded effusively in a closed door meeting with lawmakers on March 10.

The following day, Merkel appeared with Spahn at a press conference and delivered sobering news to the public. Citing virologists, she said that as many as 70% of Germans could be infected if containment measures aren’t taken.

That moment marked a return to the front line for the chancellor who had seemed distant from domestic politics and only interested in foreign affairs for most of her fourth and final term. Diminished by a historically low election score for her Christian Democratic Union-led bloc in 2017, then a failed attempt to form a three-way coalition with the Greens that was torpedoed by the Free Democrats, Merkel struggled to assert herself at home. Unexplained shivering fits last year led many to write her off.

Merkel’s decision to resign the CDU leadership in 2018 plunged the party into infighting, as battles over its direction in the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 fueled the far-right’s rise. Germany is still divided over her decision to allow in more than a million refugees, and Merkel’s legacy risked being overshadowed by the arrival in the Bundestag as the largest opposition force of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD.

Transparency lessons

Merkel has learned from her mistakes during the refugee crisis, when she was criticized for not communicating the reasons for her decisions. She now gives regular updates on the government response to the virus’s march, after her meeting with German state leaders and her video conferences with Group of Seven and EU leaders this week, and as seen by her address to the nation.

Thomas Heilmann, a CDU member of the federal parliament who has known the chancellor since she became party leader two decades ago, cited her strong nerves and ability to keep calm in critical situations as assets in the current crisis, noting that even the AfD’s repeated calls for her resignation have gone silent. She tries to make decisions on the basis of facts and after consulting a number of experts, he said.

“Merkel is somebody who is interested in all aspects of a problem and able to process loads of information,” Heilmann said. “She has a network of people to whom she listens for advice.”

It’s a faculty she’s honed over years of crisis-fighting. Merkel cut her teeth during the global financial crisis of 2008, standing alongside Peer Steinbrueck, her then finance minister - and later, one of several defeated challengers - to guarantee German savers’ bank deposits. In the subsequent economic downturn that was then the worst since the Great Depression, Germany’s export-oriented economic model took a hammering, but she and Germany fought back with a cash for clunkers plan that was widely copied in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Schaeuble overruled

She came into her own during the European sovereign debt crisis that first emerged in Greece in late 2009 and spread throughout the euro area, threatening the entire European project. Opinion remains divided on Germany’s actions to stem the crisis, yet it was Merkel who over-ruled her longstanding finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, to keep Greece in the euro and provided the political will to hold the currency area together.

During those long years of crisis, Merkel dominated both by measure of Germany’s status as Europe’s largest economy but also by her grasp of detail, negotiating ability and sheer doggedness - she is known for her staying power during late night discussions.

Those qualities may yet be called upon again. As a result, her management of the coronavirus crisis could become the defining moment of her chancellorship.

“If Merkel manages to get Germany through this crisis like in 2008, she’ll appear to many Germans like a saint afterward,” said Heilmann, acknowledging that “it’s way too early to say” how this will pan out.

Regardless, Germany under Merkel is changing already. She has pledged to do whatever is needed to shield Europe’s biggest economy from the virus fallout. She even raised the prospect of joint European bond sales as a potential tool to be deployed, potentially opening the door to Germany underwriting weaker states - a Rubicon she once vowed would not be crossed.

Unlike her fellow leaders, Merkel has no election to fight since she is standing down next year come what may. As she returns to prominence, Friedrich Merz, her long-term antagonist who is challenging to succeed her as chancellor and take the CDU away from her centrist course, has been diagnosed with Covid-19.

With the coronavirus paramount, calls for Merkel to stand down have now evaporated.

“It would just look absurd to call for Merkel’s resignation in this situation,” said Sarcinelli. Nobody is now talking about the power struggle in the CDU, he said. “She’s back in charge.”

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