Merkel's Misstep

How Pragmatism Backfired

German Chancellor in Hanover, December 5, 2012. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Rarely does German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political instinct fail her as badly as it did this month. During a televised youth forum, she told a 13-year-old Palestinian refugee named Reem Sahwil, who had just shared that she and her family faced possible deportation after their permanent residency application had stalled for the last four years, that the young girl was “a nice person” but that “politics is hard” and “some [migrants] will have to go home.” When Reem burst into tears, Merkel looked distraught and gave her a gentle but terse stroke on the back. Soon after, angry comments flooded in on Twitter under the hashtag Merkelstreichelt (Merkel strokes). Posting later about Berlin’s role in the Greek bailout deal, the writer Evgeny Morozov tweeted, “This week has been fantastic for German public diplomacy. All that was missing was Merkel making refugee children cry.”

Merkel’s reputation for pragmatism, which helped her become Europe’s most powerful politician, thus backfired when she was confronted with the social reality of her policies: here was a girl who got hurt despite playing by the rules. The contrast seemed to strike at the heart of Berlin’s message that its system works.

The bad press comes at a sensitive time. Merkel’s position toward the Greek bailout deal has drummed up criticism in Europe and farther afield for being not just overly demanding but also unrealistic. As the various sides negotiate the agreement’s terms in the coming weeks, German politicians would do well to reevaluate the flawed assumptions on which they have built their policies: when it comes to the European project, much of Germany’s perceived pragmatism is a myth.

Merkel’s initial urge to empathize with the Palestinian girl evoked an image that her center-right Christian Democratic Union party has worked hard to advance: that of the chancellor as mutti, or “mom.” But it is hard to come across as a benevolent if stern caregiver when one is leader of

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