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Data Privacy: When Angela Merkel Leads From Behind

How the German Chancellor turns big political crises into major reforms. After the NSA scandal, it’s data privacy.

July 31, 2013

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Before the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Angela Merkel had hesitated for years on agreeing to a firm closing date for Germany’s nuclear power plants.

After Fukushima, the German chancellor — forever the pragmatist as well as a (constructively understood) opportunist — stormed to the front of the parade and announced plans to phase out nuclear energy completely.

Her critics call that “leading from behind.” Political realists call it the art of generating consensus on very complex and contentious issues, if and when the moment is ripe. Ms. Merkel is a master of that art.

She has an impeccable sense of timing, which explains both her rise to as well as her longevity at the top of German politics, despite the many (male) competitors vying for her job all along.

With federal elections in Germany coming up in September, Ms. Merkel has come under criticism at home for not having been completely above board on the U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropping scandal.

Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic challenger for her job, has tried to draw blood and cut into her lead in the polls.

Seemingly cornered, Ms. Merkel is resorting to her trademark toolkit, turning what might be a career crisis for others into a cathartic and liberating moment of true policymaking.

So what is her latest crisis turning into a mega-opportunity? Merkel’s announcement that the European Union must have a strict law binding all Internet providers to reveal whatever personal information they have stored on individuals.

Cornered in Germany, she extracts herself splendidly by taking on the mantle of Europe’s leader — essentially laying down a new European law in one single policy pronouncement.

Nobody is faster in seizing such leadership opportunities.

Google, Facebook and Co. may take Merkel’s shift on the issue with their usual nonchalance, but these companies would be well advised to reconsider. The German nuclear industry, too, had thought that it was “safe” — and it certainly had been very powerful for a long time.

On data privacy issues, Ms. Merkel now vows to apply a strict territoriality principle: You do business here, you play by our rules.

That is not the kind of move the data giants would have hoped for right at the outset of the transatlantic trade negotiations, which got started recently.

But when the German chancellor is cornered, she has an uncanny ability not just to extract herself, but also to arrive, finally, at policy choices that are wise and principled.

As was the case with her eventual abandonment of nuclear energy, this most recent move is, once again, taking the wind out of the sails of the Green Party, by now often the most dynamic force in German politics.

Being against nuclear power and being for strict privacy have long been core Green tenets. But it isn’t just that Ms. Merkel is merrily usurping the Greens’ policy platforms.

Her position is also reflected in the German constitution. After the manifold crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, Germany’s Basic Law puts the highest value on human dignity, of which privacy is one of the most important elements.

And by taking the position she did on the issue of Internet privacy in the wake of the N.S.A. scandal, Ms. Merkel has also managed to diffuse some questions about her own past in East Germany.

How better to take the steam out of that issue than to argue that the N.S.A. scandal shows that all of Europe must firmly support one principle — that a person’s privacy and control over personal data must be supreme?

That is bound to lead to conflict with the United States.

There, the presumption prevails that, when it comes to data protection issues, citizens mostly need protection from an overzealous government. In contrast, there is much greater acceptance for businesses’ collecting data.

Not so in Europe, which is why this issue is potentially so divisive. This is further exacerbated by the fact that there is a widespread perception in Germany of the United States simply putting itself above the law.

Doing so had been thought to be a “Bush thing,” so the disillusionment with the Obama administration, led by a former constitutional law professor, is especially profound.

The real transatlantic fallout from Snowden’s actions may therefore, quite unexpectedly, rain down on the U.S. data-mining giants in the private sector. Europeans have long been uncomfortable with their unperturbed reach.

Now, in the wake of the NSA scandal, this issue has become a matter of European identity and self-defense — as important to this generation as the agricultural sector was in the past.

The fact that, as it now turns out, the European domestic intelligence services played along with the NSA, while a cause of embarrassment, will likely only add to the determination and resolve that things can’t continue to slide as they have.

There has been an intense and unprecedented campaign in the European Parliament, undertaken by and on behalf of data and social media firms, to beat back a firm European approach on data privacy.

But now, the odds for that industry-sponsored campaign have changed dramatically. Count on Angela Merkel to say, What more proof do you need for the vast potential for abuse?

Data privacy’s likely new champion, Angela Merkel, will argue — jointly with another woman, the feisty and effective EU commissioner Viviane Reding — that this is now a proven case, beyond any reasonable doubt.

The odds are for these two true leaders to win this key civic rights battle. The world will thank them for it.


Data privacy, like agriculture for past generations, has become an issue of European identity and self-defense.

The real transatlantic fallout from Snowden's leaks will come down on private U.S. data-mining giants.

Data privacy's new champion, Merkel, will make common cause with another powerful woman, Viviane Reding.

What was always surmised, grave data privacy violations, is now a case proven beyond reasonable doubt.