Is Angela Merkel a new Margaret Thatcher?


As an academic I always have to invent new ways to stimulate the minds of students. As personalities always matter in politics, I thought that it would be interesting to mention to students the idea of different leadership styles.

As the discussion evolved, I asked students to compare and contrast different leaders, in order to see commonalities and differences, and then to present their findings. One of these presentations focused on the Merkel -Thatcher way of leadership.

I know that some of you may have objections regarding this particular exercise. Besides, the time and conditions of the reign of these two personalities differ considerably. Still, there are certain striking similarities that are worth mentioning. Some of them follow.

Both Thatcher and Merkel started out as nice, caring, smiling ladies and ended up being butchers of the welfare state. They both implemented (or are about to) major budget cuts and became responsible for rising levels of unemployment.

They are both neo-liberal, big business friendly and pro-market. They followed the path of ‘cuts for the many, benefits for the few’. Both demonised the poor and the unemployed. Merkel targeted poor kids benefits (Hartz IV) –although her attack on the welfare state was milder to that of Thatcher. Thatcher got the free milk out from schools and cut down public funding drastically. In the meantime, fat cats were left free to earn as much as they wished. Brokers were encouraged to speculate on financial products that brought the demise of the financial system.

By attacking social benefits and welfare in general, the two “Iron Ladies” became social consensus breakers, thus marking a new phase in the political scene of their respective countries. However, in the case of Germany one has to admit that many of Merkel’s current policies were initiated by the former Red-Green coalition.

Former UK Prime Minister Edward Heath could never understand how it was that Margaret Thatcher that was elected as Tory leader. It also seems that Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt have their own objections to Merkel’s handling of European and financial affairs.

Thatcher and Merkel both played with populist tabloid instincts – although Merkel is a latecomer in this game. Thatcher nurtured the obsessions of the tabloid newspapers by attacking weak sections of society, trade unions, homosexuals and the so-called “loony left”. It seems that Merkel takes a similar path against the welfare state, although in a milder sort of way.

Nevertheless, Greece was another victim of the Merkel attack, as the German Chancellor demonised a country of the South (which only accounts for 2% of the GDP of the Eurozone) for all the evils of the current financial system. It seemed that Greece became the scapegoat for all the problems of Germany, Europe and the world.

Neither Thatcher nor Merkel is renowned for their diplomatic manners.

The actions of the two can be seen as an exercise in Euro-cautiousness. Merkel adopted the Thatcher style of the stubborn “No, no, no” in the negotiations for a European Financial Stability Fund. Thatcher preferred to have a special relationship with the USA rather than invest in a strong UK-EU relationship.

Merkel did not boycott the EU in the way Thatcher did. Still, she has not managed to create strong relations with other European leaders. She failed to cooperate with her European partners when it was necessary, thus allowing the financial crisis to snowball to the proportions of an avalanche. Her snobbery toward the EU came at a high cost, as her actions undermined the stability of the Euro.

It is worth mentioning that neither of the two women managed to maintain a good working relationship with France.

Thatcher was seen as pro-militarist. She even led the UK to war with Argentina over the Falklands. Although Merkel did not support the US’s Iraq invasion, she declared herself in favour of further involvement of German troops in Afghanistan. Germany became one of the major troop contributors to Afghanistan, although protests in German society are still strong on this issue.

Another similarity with Thatcher is that Merkel adopts a patronising style of politics – only she seems to know what is good. Their failure to take into account social sensitivities and intellectual analyses seems to be a common point of weakness.

What about the results of the Thatcher/Merkel policies? The British Prime Minister left us with a “Reaganised” world, the German Chancellor left us with a “Merkelised Europe”, as a fellow EUobserver blogger recently mentioned.

We have seen the disastrous results of Thatcherism. Now we are living through a revival of Thatcherism under the reign of Angela Merkel. The image of a leaderless, weak and socially drained Europe is gradually being consolidated in the minds of its citizens and the citizens of the whole world.

Everybody hoped that having a common currency would lead to united action against speculation. It did not happen, though – and Merkel is much to blame for that. Another opportunity was lost, another “hour of Europe” has not come. And how bored a political scientist becomes by recounting the same Euro failures again and again over the years! It seems that very little changes in Euroland.

One may (grotesquely) argue that it was in Thatcher’s interest to maintain a weak Europe. She had a privileged partnership with the USA and a good personal relationship with Ronald Reagan.
US-UK cooperation in the financial field was and remains strong. Under Thatcher, London became a hub of US financial interests. The Pound is a matter of UK national pride. There was never any great interest in joining a common currency. Nor there was a tradition of confederalism that could serve as a European model of organisation.

But what did Germany win by the weakening of the EU and the Euro? The answer is nothing.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Merkel, now that she is becoming a bit of an electoral liability. Thatcher left politics in a disgraced manner as her own party staged a coup d’état against her leadership. Will Merkel end her political career this way too?