The discreet charm of restraint

El discret encant de la sobrietat / MARI FOUZ

Few public figures are recognisable by one gesture. In fact, we would only be able to identify a handful of political leaders by their hands alone and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of them: typically, her fingers are either entwined or she presses her fingertips together.

Hands are a top asset in political communication. In fact, some Catalan readers will recall a wonderful political poster from 1977 which bore the following slogan, written in Spanish: “Mis manos, mi capital” [My Hands, My Capital] illustrated with a photo of a man showing the palm of his hands, something which perfectly encapsulated the message of the PSUC, the Catalan communist party. In Germany Angela Merkel has taken it a step further and she has got people to associate her hand gesture with a message of political sensibility, thus creating a brand of her own thanks to a package that contains exactly what it says on the label.

In fact, Merkel’s quiet leadership is her greatest political asset and, in an effort to exploit this, the CDU’s slogan in the last election was “The Future of Germany, in Good Hands”. The slogan was printed as part of a photo montage showing Merkel’s gesture on a gigantic billboard (over 2,400 square metres) that was displayed in the centre of Berlin. Nowadays Merkel’s hands are recognisable across Europe and the restraint with which she carries herself (her demeanour, her choice of clothes and the way she handles public affairs) has endowed her with a distinct auctoritas.

In today’s dossier, we explain how Germany has surrendered to Merkel thanks to her efficient management of the coronavirus crisis and its effects on the EU. Plenty of people recognise that her leadership has averted Europe’s downfall following the worst of crisis in a continent that historically has been far from a bed of roses. Merkel and Emmanuel Macron’s decision to bring back the Paris-Berlin axis and impose on their partners the negotiation of a shared solidarity reconstruction fund is a momentous occasion in history and a point of no return in the political and economic construction of the continent.

Merkel’s appeal stems from having turned authority into political auctoritas, which she has earned with aplomb by doing the right thing despite what the opinion polls advised. She chose to be on the right side of history when she allowed in hundreds of thousands of migrants —with her popularity at stake and putting wind in the sails of the far right— and she did the right thing again when, one week before Germany had it first coronavirus case, she put her government on the alert and set up an undisputed committee with experts selected from the Robert Koch Institut and other scientists and virologists.

The leader who came from the East has succeeded in managing a solid health care system and she showed restraint when she explained how dire the situation was in a solemn but collected speech on 18 March. Do not overdo public addresses and do not overact are two top tips for sound political communication of the crisis everywhere and Angela Merkel’s communication style is solid and austere. These were her words to the German people: “The situation is serious and must be taken seriously”. She went on to draw a comparison between WW2 and the present challenge, addressing viewers as grown-ups and assuring them that she would only limit individual freedom to the extent that it was strictly necessary to avert the collapse of the health care system. “We are a democracy. We thrive not because we are forced to do something, but because we share knowledge and encourage active participation”, she said. And this is how she went about coordinating Germany’s länder without limiting the handling of their own affairs and respecting their authority.

Germany is faced with a major crisis but, once again, it is managing it soundly and with aplomb. In fact, the reason why it has kept Europe’s advantage is that, once again, it has managed to preempt the truly important decisions, like Gerhard Schröder did when he sorted out the economy at great risk for the SPD.

The 10.01 per cent drop in the GPD recorded in the second quarter has sent shock waves compared to the 7.9 per cent fall in Q2 2009, when the world economy was mired in the financial crisis.

The multi-million federal shot in the arm of the economy is unprecedented and optimists claim that the worst is over and we shall see growth make a strong comeback. However, there is no guarantee of that in the immediate future. Germany’s export markets are devastated and the automotive industry has a great bearing on the labour market, so much so that IG Metall, a German trade union, has estimated that 300,000 direct and indirect jobs are in jeopardy.

Many analysts have discussed Henry Kissinger’s statement about Germany: “Too big for Europe, too small for the world”. The world has change now and heft is no longer about size or landmass. Merkel’s Germany has succeeded in being Europe’s centre of gravity in the last few years and the success of the EU rests on her leadership. Especially once the composed Chancellor has retired.

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