BERLIN — The world’s (still) most powerful woman spent the night in a hotel near Cologne airport in western Germany, rather than on her government plane to the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. Shortly after takeoff in Berlin on Thursday, Merkel’s equivalent of the Air Force One had suffered a complete breakdown of all onboard communications systems.
Such malfunctions are considered severe in international air transport, and when Merkel landed in Cologne only a short time later, fire brigade vehicles were lined up next to the runway.
“This was a serious breakdown,” Merkel acknowledged Thursday night. So far, officials say they have not been able to assess what caused the malfunction, but there are no indications for deliberate sabotage.
On Friday, Merkel instead boarded a commercial plane from Madrid, together with stunned tourists, business travelers and only a handful of advisers.
Two or three weeks ago, this episode could have been a metaphor capturing Merkel’s recent woes and a perhaps unglamorous goodbye as German leader. At the end of last month, she had announced that she would step down as leader of her Christian Democratic Union party and that she would not run for another term in 2021. She probably won’t last that long, her critics immediately predicted.
So far, there are no signs that the chancellor is turning into a lame duck, however. In parliamentary debates, she has suddenly appeared revived and energetic.
But Merkel’s emergency landing on Thursday night still tells us something else about Germany — and how international perceptions of that country do not always match reality. These days, Berlin can sometimes appear more like a parody of itself than the power engine of the punctual and efficient nation that’s so well known abroad.
When Merkel and her entourage headed to the airport on Thursday evening, their destination shouldn’t have existed anymore. Berlin’s Tegel Airport was supposed to close back in 2012, but the opening of its replacement — the so-called BER — was canceled on short notice. Seven years since the scheduled date, nobody knows when and if Berlin’s new airport will open its doors. On Facebook, invitations to BER opening parties have become a running gag.
Until that party takes place for real, Merkel will have to fly out of an airport that is operating far above capacity, using planes that are being operated by the German military, the Bundeswehr. In recent months, those planes have repeatedly broken down. A month ago, German Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz had to take commercial aircraft from Indonesia back to Berlin after rodents damaged cables.
The Bundeswehr itself isn’t in great shape, either. To the amusement of the world, Germany’s military made headlines a few years ago for replacing machine guns with broomsticks during a NATO exercise because of a lack of equipment. The headlines weren’t exaggerated. Earlier this year, an internal watchdog described the German military as virtually “not deployable for collective defense.” Only a few of the country’s tanks, helicopters and planes are combat-ready, and pilots have at times had to resort to private automobile clubs' choppers to practice. Germany approved a boosted defense budget this year, but any trend reversal will take a lot longer.
Meanwhile, the onboard communications breakdown Thursday night might be rare and dangerous on a plane, but it’s the norm for anyone who has ever traveled by car or train in Germany. Vast stretches lack phone or Internet service. “Germany remains amongst the lowest scoring countries in Western Europe in both our 4G download speed and LTE availability metrics,” wireless coverage mapping company OpenSignal recently observed.
Germany still has a booming economy and some of the world’s most efficient workers and is topping international rankings in other ways. But Merkel’s absence during the G-20 on Friday will disrupt at least one myth entirely: punctuality.
More on WorldViews: