At one point in the first general debate of the legislative period in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, Angela Merkel gave a small, wry smile. Christian Lindner, head of the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) had taken the country's grand coalition government to task and issued a demand to the chancellor: "Lead, lead this country!" But I am doing that, her eyes seemed to say, in my own manner.
A stern, clear-cut leadership style is not Merkel's cup of tea. It never was, it never will be, and that isn't about to change during her fourth term in office. She observes while others debate; she waits to see what opinions will crystallize. She is the figure in the background who plans and deliberates what might be doable and effective.
On the political stage, she will never be the kind of person who leads the pack into the fray, who goes out on a limb and doesn't fear getting her fingers burnt. Certainly not after the devastating consequences she has faced for her decisions to accept refugees into the country.
How do you eat an elephant?
Merkel is the opposite of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. No matter how different the United States and French presidents are, they stand for something. They are opinionated, they have a vision, one could almost say a mission. But where Merkel is concerned, politics have nothing at all to do with that kind of passion. It's an endless "to do" list that needs to be dealt with one issue at a time. How do you eat an elephant? One bite after another.
The Bundestag debate showed what that means for her policies: be it on Iran, the US, Syria, Russia or the EU — Merkel's approach won't change.
Her rule of thumb: small steps rather than grand visions. Macron can push all he wants — EU reforms are nothing Merkel would want to rush. With her as chancellor, Germany will not commit to anything at all before the small details have been fine-tuned.
Bump in a long road
Merkel is relaxed and matter-of-fact regarding the US and Trump, too. The trans-Atlantic alliance continues to be of "outstanding importance," no matter what is currently going wrong. You have to endure differences of opinion, make the best of a situation and make sure it doesn't escalate. If all you get when visiting the president is three hours of talks, bread and water, instead of a state reception, then so be it. No reason to get upset. It comes with the job.
Many may criticize this approach, but in times as tense as the present, with populists trying to convince people that to solve problems quickly one simply has to be tough enough, a laid-back approach can be pleasant. Like her reaction after Alice Weidel, head of the largest opposition party in parliament, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), opened the general debate. The insulting, incendiary speech had the plenary session up in arms. She referred to "girls in headscarves and other good-for-nothing people," and called the chancellor and her ministers idiots.
No sign of weariness
And what did Merkel, who was up next, do? She walked up to the lectern, said "good morning" and gave the lawmakers a calm and friendly look. Like a mother ignoring a toddler's tantrum. She then delivered her stoic speech, just like countless government policy statements before. That is how we know her.
She seemed to be in a good mood, at peace with domestic politics and her government coalition, after the months-long formation of the government had visibly taken a toll. Merkel is back to her regular "chancellor mode." There is not a trace of weariness. People who bet on her stepping down halfway into the legislative period may just be in for a disappointment.