A PREVIOUS socialist president of France, Francois Mitterrand, once said of Margaret Thatcher that she had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.
Critics of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, would probably stop at the half-way point of that thorny compliment. The peepers of an emperor, mistress of all she surveys, when will she stop telling the EU what to do?
Like Baroness Thatcher, Mrs Merkel has a tendency to arouse intense feelings in opponents. From Greek cartoonists to Gunter Grass, the German Nobel Laureate, who described the treatment of indebted Greece as "Europe's disgrace", her stewardship during the eurozone crisis has been the subject of many an unflattering assessment.
The Thatcher comparison is an apt one, given how much the two women have in common. Both scientists by training, both mould-breakers in politics, both represent the right, and both are known to give men of a certain bent an attack of the collywobbles.
To his credit, David Cameron is not among those faint-hearted types. Perhaps because he sees in the conservative Christian Democrat a political relation to Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister has always treated her as someone with whom he could do business. Thatcher had her Gorbachev, Cameron his Merkel.
Yesterday, prior to their meeting in Berlin, the Prime Minister tried to lighten the load on the Chancellor by stressing that solving the eurozone crisis was not a job solely for her, but a task for all the parties affected, including Britain. As the biggest threat to the world economy today, it was up to all sides, America and Britain included, to find a solution quickly. No one eurozone leader, he added, should be singled out and all responsibility put on them.
His words, regardless of how much they will turn out to mean in practice, will be welcomed in Germany, where an increasing number of citizens are feeling pretty roughed up by the response to Germany's insistence on austerity first. Such has been the reaction in Greece in particular that German tourists (in common with other Europeans it has to be said), are reluctant to go there on holiday. Bookings are down 33% on this time last year. Not what Greece needs.
Have we come to the point where Germans fear not just civil disruption if they go on holiday to Greece – the odd train strike, demonstrations closing tourist attractions – but worse? Having seen reports of a German flag being burnt, not to mention a grossly offensive mock-up in a Greek newspaper of Mrs Merkel in a Nazi uniform, Germans can be forgiven for not wanting to take even the slightest chance of a less than warm welcome.
The ill feeling towards Germany in Greece, and wider, is a depressing commentary on Europe today, but not a surprising one. The history of the last century is to Europe what that boulder was to Sisyphus. Just when you think the stone has been rolled to the top of the hill, back it tumbles again. The entire European project rose from the ashes of Europe, from a desire to never have the same happen again, but leaving the past behind was always going to be difficult. The EU has been in existence for the blink of an eye; Europe as a whole can point to centuries of painful history and mistrust. No surprise which exerts the stronger pull.
Mrs Merkel likely added to the unease in some quarters with her talk yesterday on German TV of wanting "more Europe", and of the need for "a political union first and foremost". At last, the sceptics will say, the mask has slipped. How right Nicholas Ridley, Tory Minister of old, was to say the EU was "a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe".
Yet to believe even a fraction of this is to misunderstand modern Germany and the very modern Chancellor who is Mrs Merkel. My experience of the country is that it is as diverse and as resistant to simplistic analysis as one would expect a nation of 81 million people to be. Is the Germany that wants to take over Europe the Germany of multicultural Berlin (some 3.5m people), or the Germany of the more conservative southern regions?
It is plain from the flag waving of the last week that the UK remains in love with its history and what it believes it represents. Not so Germany. As can be seen from the grumblings in its domestic media, the Germans no more want to take possession of an ailing Europe than they want to buy one million second-hand Trabants. They went through the pain of restructuring in the Schroeder years. They exported and saved their way out of the gloom and were enjoying the gains until this crisis came along.
Angela Merkel, born in 1954, is of that post-war generation of Germans who grew up looking forward. Not easy for her in particular, since the Merkels moved from the West to the communist East when she was young. Having grown up in a divided nation, Mrs Merkel is drawn naturally to consensus politics, as shown by her party, the Christian Democrats, once entering into coalition with the left-leaning Social Democratic Party.
One could never imagine Mrs Thatcher putting pragmatism over politics in such a way. In truth, though their detractors try to push the comparison, Mrs M and Mrs T are very different political animals. Mrs Thatcher relished a scrap with Europe, the more blood and broken teeth the better. Mrs Merkel takes a more measured, some would say plodding, approach.
Amid the clamour for action, she has kept her calm, siding with those who argue it will take a marathon, not a sprint, to get through the eurozone crisis. Yet as events in Spain show, Mrs Merkel may not have as much time as she desires to put the eurozone together again. The most powerful woman in the world, as Forbes magazine dubs her, is at the mercy of events, both at home, where her party has suffered defeats, and abroad.
Spain will be her real test. To attach strings to a recapitalisation of Spain's banks, or not to attach? To change the rules to suit the circumstances, or not to change? To risk setting an undesirable precedent or not to risk? So long both pilloried and applauded for trying to shape Europe, Mrs Merkel is about to find leadership a very lonely land indeed.
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