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Merkel perfects the art of the political apology

Published: (Updated: ) in European News by .

The German chancellor asked for forgiveness over a bungled plan to lockdown the country over Easter.

Matthew Karnitschnig is POLITICO’s chief Europe correspondent.

BERLIN — Who knew that Angela Merkel and Muhammad Ali were soulmates?

Backed into a COVID-19 corner by Berlin’s political pugilists this week, the visibly exhausted German leader caught her opponents off-guard with a sudden flash of unexpected genius, her own version of Ali’s legendary rope-a-dope: the “Merkel Culpa.”

“The mistake is my mistake alone,” Merkel told the Bundestag on Wednesday. “I ask both the public and you, dear colleagues, for forgiveness.”

Merkel said she was apologizing for a decision (since reversed) that she took earlier in the week to shut the country down for five days over Easter in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

Not that it really mattered much. The second Merkel stood up and asked for forgiveness, the reason for her apology was almost beside the point. For the next 24 hours, the news cycle was dominated by one issue — Merkel’s jaw-dropper of an apology. For good measure, Merkel granted a rare one-on-one interview to German public television to apologize again. 

For the most part the reaction, from Paris to Madrid to Berlin, was one of heartfelt admiration and gratitude, even among her political opponents.  

“This is a service to democracy,” declared Katrin Göring-Eckardt, co-leader of the Greens in parliament. 

Political scientists may debate that conclusion, but there should be no doubt of the service Merkel did for her own agenda by fessing up. 

In one fell swoop, Merkel both diverted attention away from the unpopular move to close over Easter, while shielding her political allies by taking the blame on her own shoulders. 

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Merkel’s appearance in parliament on Wednesday — one of only a handful of occasions MPs have during the year to directly ask her questions — promised to be an opportunity for the opposition to land punches over what many regard as the government’s mishandling of the pandemic response. 

Instead, they found themselves swinging at air.   

Even before she entered the chamber, Merkel stole the MPs’ thunder by apologizing first at a press conference. By the time she arrived at the Bundestag, the news was out. The chancellor then stood stone-faced, as one MP after another attacked her for things she’d already apologized for. To the average viewer, the opposition’s righteous grandstanding must have seemed gratuitous. 

Few of the speakers seemed to realize the obvious — that Merkel had not only won the round, but the bout.

Merkel long ago established herself as a master tactician. What she proved this week is that even after 16 years in office, she’s still in a class of her own. Even so, as is inevitable for anyone who has stood in the ring for so many years, she’s also showing visible signs of wear and questionable judgement. 

Merkel might have apologized for trying to push through an unpopular Easter lockdown, but her real mistake was not anticipating the public’s reaction. 

The chancellor’s explanation for the misstep — that the Easter closure was put forward in haste after 15 hours of negotiations with regional leaders — was tenuous at best. As anyone familiar with Merkel’s modus operandi knows, her history of negotiating exhausted interlocutors into political submission is the stuff of legend, be it in Brussels or Berlin. Few can match either Merkel’s stamina or her determination to reach a deal before sunrise.

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For Merkel, marathon negotiations are not the exception, but the rule. 

Her goal this week was to find a deal among Germany’s 16 fractious regions over measures to break what medical officials describe as a third wave of COVID-19. With the population already chafing under the stress of the current restrictions, which have been in place for months, finding consensus for further restrictions was not going to be easy. 

Nonetheless, Merkel managed to do so, ramming through a proposal for an Easter shutdown, a five-day closure over the extended weekend. While that would only be slightly longer than the traditional three- or four-day break Germans enjoy over the holiday anyway, legal and tax experts questioned how the additional days off would be classified, as a federal holiday or “days of rest,” like a Sunday?

More important than the bureaucratic detail, however, was that Germans have simply had it. The government’s slow rollout of vaccines and suspected corruption in mask procurement involving prominent members of Merkel’s center-right party have left many Germans fuming. The prospect of being holed up at home for five days over Easter was for many a bridge too far.  

To her credit, Merkel got the message and acted. But even if it’s not every day that politicians so openly ask for forgiveness, it’s also worth remembering that Merkel has little to lose. With only six months left before elections, she is effectively a lame duck. 

And, compared with some of her past mistakes (such as her treatment of Greece during the debt crisis or the errors she made in Europe on refugee policy, neither of which she apologized for), her Easter misstep is relatively minor. 

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But therein lies Merkel’s genius. Years from now, few will remember why she apologized, only that she had the courage to stand up and say in humble tones and without reservation, “I was wrong.”  

That’s why when it comes to political instinct, Merkel will be remembered, like Ali in boxing ring, simply as “The Greatest.” 

Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/german-chancellor-angela-merkel-perfects-the-art-of-the-political-apology/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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