Angela Merkel: The iron lady of German politics hoping to emulate Thatcher's unlikely rise to power

Leader of the Christian Democratic Union party
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The Independent Online

How British eyes glaze at the mere mention of German politics. Anything less than the jubilant drama that was the breaching of the Berlin Wall, anything less than the high pomp and base savagery of the Third Reich, just does not get a look in.

How British eyes glaze at the mere mention of German politics. Anything less than the jubilant drama that was the breaching of the Berlin Wall, anything less than the high pomp and base savagery of the Third Reich, just does not get a look in.

Well, here is an exception. As Germany this month registered its highest number of unemployed since the Weimar Republic, audiences across London listened, riveted, to the quietly modulated voice of a leading German politician. They peppered her with questions, savoured the clarity and thought that went into her answers and complimented her lavishly behind her back.

To say that Angela Merkel is a woman to watch would be an understatement. Leader of Germany's centre-right opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, she heads the combined CDU/CSU opposition to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Red-Green coalition in the German parliament. She has a more than even chance of becoming chancellor of Germany in next year's elections, the country's first female chancellor.

Ms Merkel is a phenomenon. She is a woman at the helm of a major party in a political culture that is even more male-dominated than our own. And she is an Ossi - an East German - who has successfully made the transition into the upper echelons of united Germany's still west-dominated political hierarchy. That is a remarkable achievement in itself.

The more you learn about her politics, the more you appreciate the extent to which her views and approach have been formed by the years she spent under communist rule. Now 50, she was 35 when the Berlin Wall fell and a research physicist at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. One of her recurring themes is the unthinking condescension that "west" Europeans and others tend to display towards the "new" Europeans of the east.

East Europeans entering the EU, she says, "are often looked on as people who want something, not as people who can contribute something". The new low-tax regimes, the flexibility of economies, the lack of bureaucracy, all offer lessons to west Europeans, but lessons they seem reluctant to recognise.

Western Europe, she says, "is too used to freedom and cannot imagine that it could ever be lost". Sometimes, she says, she looks at her fellow politicians from former West Germany and cannot help wondering, "How would this guy have reacted under Communist Party pressure? Does he know what real pressure is, real courage"?

She is laconic about her own previous life, hinting only at its complexities. "In the GDR, I was always a political animal," she says. "The system and state were perpetually at odds with themselves and with common sense. The question was always how you could reconcile the two. There was this constant personal argument going on."

Clearly more of a realist than an idealist, she does not claim to have rushed into the incipient democracy movement. "I joined the newly formed grouping Deutsche Aufbruch (German Awakening) in 1989, but not as a founder member." She says she became spokeswoman for Deutsche Aufbruch "by chance". No longer by chance, one suspects, she then became regional spokeswoman when her party became affiliated with the West German CDU.

But the merger gave Ms Merkel her opportunity. This is where she came to the attention of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who - with Germany reunited - was at the zenith of his power and popularity. Mr Kohl became her patron in the party and more powerful politicians acquiesced, feeling, quite wrongly as it turned out, that a woman from the East would hardly pose a threat to their ambitions.

There are echoes here of Margaret Thatcher's rise to the Conservative Party leadership, an underestimate of the woman in their midst until it was too late. And you can sense Ms Merkel does not find the comparison displeasing, even as she sets about demolishing it.

Is she the German Thatcher? "Well, there is one important difference," she shoots back with a smile. "I was in favour of German reunification. She was a chemist, I am a physicist." Then, more reflectively, she adds: "My whole life was changed by reunification. I have experienced change as something good, not something to be avoided."

Yet Ms Merkel and Baroness Thatcher do have obvious traits in common. There is the similar businesslike manner, the similar encyclopedic range, the similar instant grasp of the issue and its political implications, the similar refreshing absence of jargon and spin, the similar practicality. You could imagine Ms Merkel rewiring a plug or rustling up a meal for 12 with the same efficiency as she makes a political speech and answers questions.

Her views on the German economy of today, stagnant, on the verge of recession, plagued by unemployment, in deficit beyond the 3 per cent set by the EU stability pact, are typical of her robust approach. Should the limit be raised (as some are suggesting)? "It should stay as it is," she says firmly. "Three per cent is quite enough. We need lines that are not crossed. With a common currency, we must have common borrowing limits."

After Ms Merkel's successful stint as spokeswoman, she decided to go into politics in her own right. In December 1990 she was elected to the first parliament of the reunited Germany. The euphoria of unification may, she now admits, have had an adverse effect on Germany's overall development. "Maybe we lost time because we were so carried away with the joy over unification and lost sight of the need to compete beyond Germany now that the Cold War was over." She suggests it was too self-absorbed for too long.

In her Stralsund constituency in north-eastern Germany on the Baltic, Ms Merkel attracts affection and respect in equal measure. She is both "one of us", an East German, a woman with a sensible hair-do and no-nonsense clothes, and someone who has made it in the bigger world, a world that seems a universe away from their own, small-town concerns. Many credit her with helping to draw the huge amounts of investment that Stralsund has enjoyed since 1991.

Tourists are returning, there are new hotels, but still young people are leaving for lack of jobs and the surrounding countryside looks neglected. Her solution? The restructuring of the German economy and the cuts in the benefits system just embarked upon by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder must be speeded and not sacrificed to the general election due next year.

Aside from the need for global competitiveness, Ms Merkel says there is another reason why Germany - and France - should get their economic houses in order, and this has to do with Britain. "We need Britain [in the EU]. If the continentals performed better economically, this would take away Britain's excuse that it has nothing to gain from closer ties. The pound is already linked more closely to the euro than the dollar."

If there is to be a two-tier Europe, she believes Britain ought to be on the inside and some of the aspiring EU countries, notably Turkey, ought to be in the outer circle with something like associate status. "Turkey is larger than Germany. It will dominate Europe. And we need to ask where Europe begins and ends. This is a crucial question."

Ms Merkel has come in for harsh criticism in her own party for not leading a more aggressive critique of the Schröder government. But she is adamant that if the government is going in the right direction, the opposition should be constructive. She also points out that the German system requires a measure of consensus to get anything done and the opposition deserves credit for reforms are happening at all. "The Chancellor understood he would lose his job if he did not change direction," she says. "But a majority is a majority. If we want to pursue our policies, we have to have a majority." In Britain, majorities are much bigger because of the electoral system and a chancellor has much less power than a British prime minister.

She says, somewhat apologetically: "It's organised like this because of the Third Reich experience." So the centre-right CDU/CSU has to win the next election in autumn 2006 and all its efforts should be applied to that end. In fact, it came painfully close to winning three years ago, with the head of the CSU, the staid Bavarian Edmund Stoiber in charge. His narrow defeat allowed Ms Merkel, head of the CDU, to assume leadership of the CDU/CSU alliance. Some felt she might have been a better candidate.

By rights, she should have her chance. But against all forecasts, Chancellor Schröder's reforms have been accompanied by improved opinion polls. Some say this is because Ms Merkel has not been as combative an opposition leader as some supporters hoped; others because some voters fear reforms by the centre-right would be even less palatable. But the narrowing gap between the two blocs has prompted whispering about her leadership and she could face a challenge before the election.

That would be a pity. Ms Merkel believes she is safe, at least for now. "The 20 per cent gap in the polls was never likely to hold and the quarrelling is behind us," she says. This politician deserves her chance to take on Mr Schröder, one of the most gifted populist politicians post-war Germany has seen; and Germans deserve the choice. "We can't take it for granted Schröder will lose," she says. "But we will do our utmost to beat him."

THE CV

Born: 17 July 1954 in Hamburg

Family: Married in 1998

Education: Doctorate, Berlin Academy of Sciences

Career: Spokeswoman for Deutsche Aufbruch 1989; seat in post-reunification parliament 1990

1991-94 Federal minister for women and youth

1994-98 Federal minister for environment

1991-98 Deputy chairman of CDU

1998-2000 General secretary of CDU

2000-02 Chairman of CDU

2002-05 Chairman of CDU/CSU coalition

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