The American Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger famously once asked “Who do I call when I want to call Europe?” The modern day version coming from Rex Tillerson might be, “Who do I call, email, text, tweet…”, but the premise remains the same – who does one call to get the lowdown on Europe? With certain leadership figures rising above the crowd, the current U.S. Secretary has some pretty good options available.
Emmanuel Macron – The ambitious new kid on the bloc
The poster boy of French politics, Mr Emmanuel Macron has recently joined the ranks of rosy-cheeked nation state leaders on the world stage. After founding his own party En Marche! in early 2016 (a keen observer will note it shares the same initials as his own name), he led his party to victory less than a year later in the French parliamentary elections. His triumph was unprecedented and audacious; the presidential election was his first time running for public office and he won it with apparent ease. Such a rapid rise power is rarely achieved in politics by democratic means, although comparison could be made to a certain head of state across the Atlantic Ocean who also circumvented the typical route in his bid for Presidential office. Continue reading “The Who’s Who of Europe: The Powerful Personalities in the EU”→
Germany has just experienced one of the most turbulent general elections in recent history. Merkel has gained another 4-year term; for the first time since WWII, a far-right party, the AfD, has made its way into the German parliament; and a three-party coalition seems inevitable. But what else can we tell from this election?
Winners and losers:
A record six parties have entered the Bundestag. They are: The centre-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union), SPD (Social Democratic Party), The Left (Die Linke), The Greens (Die Grünen), the FDP (Free Democratic Party), and the AfD (Alternative for Germany).
As it stands, no party wishes to cooperate with the AfD, and die Linke is a traditionally difficult ally due to its uneasy past regarding the East German Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst, SSD). Since the SPD vows to withdraw from the grand coalition that it has formed with the CDU since 2013, the only feasible possibility is the CDU-Greens-FDP coalition – also known as the ‘Jamaica’ coalition, named after the three colours. Although coalition government is not something new for the German politics, a three-party coalition is still not commonly seen in the German parliament. Continue reading “German Elections Explained – Inside the politics of the 2017 campaign”→
On the morning of 12 February of this year, 1260 members of the German Federal Assembly, which includes Bundestag members and state electors, voted to choose the 12th President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Garnering over 900 votes, the clear winner was the Grand Coalition candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister and ran for chancellor under the SPD banner in 2008. He has held public office for over 20 years.
On paper, Steinmeier has all the makings of a tame president; he is well-liked and respected in the international community and within the German government. According to Bild, Steinmeier even has the dubious honor of using the German informal “you” with more members of the Cabinet than any other – high praise for those in the German-speaking world.
However, appearances can be deceiving, and surely the Steinmeier presidency will not be without a backbone. During the last year of his term as foreign minister, Steinmeier spoke out strongly against Russian aggression, the inaction of the international community in the Syrian crisis, and the shortsightedness of the Brexit decision. Most notably, he is a decisive critic of US President Donald Trump and of the nationalist movements taking hold around the world.
From Freedom to Courage
Germany’s current president, Joachim Gauck, has spent most of his term promoting freedom. Gauck, who was an East German resistance leader before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has repeatedly stressed reconciliation and social justice in his speeches. His term has not been without crisis – the floundering euro, Brexit, and the refugee influx, just to name a few – but he has continued to call for openness, tolerance, and a need to cherish the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. Gauck embraced the “Refugees Welcome” movement more than any other German politician and at times was harsh in his criticism of those who were steadfastly anti-refugee.
Steinmeier promises to be a different kind of president. After nearly three decades in the spotlight, he is politically savvy and will likely be less concerned with visiting children’s shelters and more concerned with asserting Germany’s role in the world. If “Freedom” was the motto of the Gauck presidency, it is safe to say that “Courage” will be the that of Steinmeier’s. In his acceptance speech following his election, Steinmeier spoke of two kinds of courage: the courage that Germany can give to others, and the courage that Germans must display in the face of rising unrest in Europe and beyond.
Steinmeier recounted a story of a young Tunisian activist telling him that Germany gave her courage. Germany, which not so very long ago represented the opposite of freedom and justice, now has a place as one of the pillars of modern democracy in the West. Germany gives courage, said Steinmeier, because it is proof that peace comes after war, that reconciliation can follow division. In this sense, Germany must continue to be a symbol of courage for countries in crisis.
But Steinmeier also meant courage in another sense. Three important European elections – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are coming up this year, each with its own populist candidate. In the face of Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Geert Wilders, respectively the leaders of the nationalist waves in these countries, Steinmeier preached patience, tolerance, and above all, a commitment to the core values of Europe.
The “Anti-Trump” President?
Following his election, the German daily Berliner Morgenpost dubbed Steinmeier the “Anti-Trump President” – a title that has since been reprinted everywhere from The Independent to Bloomberg. Whether or not he enjoys the moniker, Steinmeier has certainly been among the strongest critics of the US President, referring to him at one point as a “hate-preacher.” After Trump’s election, Steinemeier issued the following statement as foreign minister: “I think we will have to get used to the idea that US foreign policy will be less predictable for us and we will have to get used to the idea that the US will tend to make more decisions on its own.” He went on to say that working together with the US will be much harder over the next four years and that Europe must stay the course, despite the unsettling results.
In his speech on Sunday, Steinmeier issued a thinly veiled critique on Trump and his populist counterparts in Europe. He called on all Germans to fight against baseless accusations and fear-mongering. “We must have the courage to say what is and what isn’t,” he said, claiming a universal responsibility to differentiate facts from lies. This, too, will likely be a theme of the Steinmeier presidency. Shortly before his candidacy was announced in 2016, the President-elect decried the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and the US and accused Trump and others of “mak[ing] politics with fear.”
Or the “Pro-Russia” President?
Rather than the “Anti-Trump” President, some may dub Frank-Walter Steinmeier the “Pro-Russia” President. As foreign minister, Steinmeier was regularly lampooned by his CDU colleagues for his mild stance toward Russia. He began his second term as foreign minister in late 2013, only a few months before Russia annexed Crimea. Following the annexation, Steinmeier joined his international colleagues in denouncing Russia and supported upping economic sanctions until the conflict was resolved.
However, Steinmeier has relaxed his stance since then and has insisted on a need to keep channels of communication open. Russia is an important actor in two of the most significant global crisis areas: Syria and the Ukraine. Continuing with heavy sanctions and isolation will do nothing to solve these issues, according to Steinmeier. Over the summer, he was also quick to criticize NATO for carrying out exercises in Eastern Europe. He accusedthe organization of “warmongering” and said, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”
Thus far, only Russian news outlets seem to believe that Steinmeier will be a friend to the east, but the differences between he and Gauck are undeniable. As a former citizen of East Germany, Gauck was understandably apprehensive about former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who has worked with the Russia on international issues since his time in the Schroeder administration, will be a welcome change for the Kremlin.
Emphasizing German Leadership
In an interview with television station ZDF following the election, Steinmeier indicated his intention to work closely with both Moscow and Washington. He was very clear that Germany is currently in the midst of a “reorganization of international relations” and that possible unpredictability in the East and the West will mean a greater need for a stable country.
Nevertheless, the role of the German president is not to negotiate with foreign leaders or herald in big changes. The German president is primarily a domestic role; he or she acts as a moral authority, but has very little political power. As the head of government, Steinmeier will be confined to ceremonial tasks like welcoming state visits and approving the Cabinet. The political might in Germany is held by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the parliament, the Bundestag. Despite his limited power, Steinmeier is expected to set a tone for the coming years and it appears as though he will be just as active as his predecessor.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take office on 18 March 18 this year. On September 24, the country will vote for new Bundestag representation and a new government will take office.
At the German conservative party’s annual meeting in Essen on December 4, Chancellor Merkel was elected head of her party for the ninth consecutive time. The show of support comes only a few weeks after Merkel announcing her willingness to stand for reelection in 2017. For those fearing the populist wave in Europe, driven in Germany with the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, Merkel’s candidature comes as a sigh of relief. However, her last term has not done her any favors on the left or the right and she was selected by only 89.5 percent of the 1,000 CDU delegates at the meeting. This marks her second worst result ever.
For the next ten months, Merkel will be forced to walk a fine line between hard-line anti-immigration policies proposed by her own party and taking care of the 1.1 million refugees that she herself welcomed in late 2015. After serving for over ten years, many question whether the Chancellor still understands the German electorate. Meanwhile, others are exalting her as the last stalwart of liberal democracy in the face of worrying populism.
Is she right for the job?
Were this a normal election cycle, pundits would be questioning whether Chancellor Merkel is good for Germany at all. After serving has the head of government for over a decade, Merkel has earned a reputation as the ultimate politician. Her speeches are measured, her policies are rarely radical, and her standard hand position, dubbed the Chancellor’s rhombus, has become iconic.
Nevertheless, Merkel’s third term has been wrought with crisis. After a narrow victory in the 2013 general election, Merkel’s CDU was forced to form a grand coalition – nicknamed the “GroKo” – with the SPD, Germany’s center-left party. Reaching consensus in a coalition government can be tricky in the best of times, but as crisis after crisis unfolded in Europe, consensus seemed impossible. Chancellor Merkel’s attempts to navigate smoothly through these crises, as she did during the eurocrisis of her second term, proved impossible.
Merkel’s migration policies in particular have drawn sharp criticism from all sides. In 2015, when the flood of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa hit its peak, Merkel famously touted Germany’s so-called “Willkommenskultur,” and insisted that Europe could manage the refugee crisis with compassion and solidarity. In a speech following an attack on a asylum center in Heidenau, Germany in 2015, Merkel stood by her decision, calling the attacks on refugees “shameful” and declaring, “I have to honestly say that if we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in the presence of need, then this is not my country.”
While Merkel’s generosity was initially met with domestic and international support, the mood quickly soured as thousands more asylum-seekers poured into Germany. Many have commented that the Chancellor’s initial reaction, so unlike her usual measured decisions, marked a clear disconnect between the Chancellor and her constituents. In 2016, when Merkel’s party only managed a third place victory behind the populist AfD and the SPD in her own district, it became all the more clear how out of touch she has become.
Is she our only hope?
Out of touch she may be, but with the threat of populist parties taking charge across Europe, Chancellor Merkel’s shortcomings become easier to swallow. The AfD, led by the startlingly Merkel-esque Frauke Petry, lists as its priorities curtailing further immigration; putting participation in the Euro up to a referendum; halting further negotiations on CETA and TTIP; and limiting Germany’s commitment to Europe with the motto “Germany first”. In other words, it is yet another iteration of the standard populist ticket seen around Europe and in the US in 2016.
Following the Brexit vote, which was driven by the populist UK Independent Party, and the US election of Donald J. Trump, the self-proclaimed “ultimate outsider,” moderates in Europe are understandably terrified. Less than a week ago, the Italian constitutional referendum prompted the resignation of Matteo Renzi. A week before that, French President François Hollande announced his intention to step down in 2017. Cameron, Renzi, Hollande, and Merkel – four of Europe’s most powerful leaders, and only one will remain in 2017.
To characterize Merkel as Europe’s “last hope” or as the “last defender” of liberal democracy, as some in the media have, seems a bit hyperbolic. The AfD did have a surprising turnout in 2016, but the likelihood that it will garner enough support to form – or even be a part of – the next coalition is slim. As of now, the party does not have any seats in the national parliament, though it does have 143 of the 1855 state parliamentary seats. Still, the rise in populism cannot be ignored and the CDU and other parties may have to cater to ideas that would have, in any other election year, seemed too far right. That was clear during the annual party meeting when delegates debated the merits of banning face veils for Muslim women and doing away with dual citizenship. The tone of the nation has shifted, and the Chancellor will have to consider this in order to run a successful campaign.
Can she win?
It may not be clear if she is the right person for the job, or if she has the full weight of the CDU behind her, but Chancellor Merkel has been in power for almost 12 years. For many Germans, she seems almost like a permanent fixture atop the governmental pyramid. Not the most effective leader, or the most likeable, but the best option for right now.
Still, Merkel’s approval ratings have seen constant fluctuation in the past year. Over the summer, she reached new lows – in an August 2016 poll published by Zeit Online, only 42% of Germans wanted to see her run again. However, immediately following the US election of Donald Trump, Merkel’s approval rating rebounded. According to a Stern Magazine poll, 59% of Germans signaled their wish for her to run again on Nov 9, perhaps a reactionary poll driven by a glimpse of real populism in the US. However, as the dust settles Merkel must find a way to make these ratings sustainable, otherwise she faces an uphill battle in September. ”You have to help me,” Chancellor Merkel told CDU members gathered in Essen last week. Someone has to.
The German Bundestagswahl (parliamentary election) ended on 22 September. The centre-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union), led by Angela Merkel, won with 41.5%; the main opposition party SPD (Social Democratic Party) got only 25.7%, The Left (Die Linke) 8.6%, The Greens (Die Grünen) 8.4%, the FDP (Free Democratic Party), the AfD (Alternative for Germany) and Pirate Party (Piraten), got 4.8%, 4.7% and 2.2% respectively. But what can we tell from the German election?
Merkelmacht, The Merkel power
Other than CDU/CSU’s victory, it is worth noticing Angela Merkel’s winning for the third term as Bundes Chancellor, the Chancellor of Germany. Merkel was Germany’s first female Chancellor and let’s not forget that she began her political career in the East German party Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening). She was later in the male-dominated CDU. At the beginning of Merkel’s career, Germans were not aware of her power in solving political crises until scandals were exposed concerning crucial CDU/CSU members. Two notable examples were the corruption conspiracy scandal concerning the former President of Germany Christian Wulff, as well as plagiarism in the doctoral theses of former Federal Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan and former Minister of Defence Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Merkel first tried to keep them in their positions, yet due to the potent force of public opinion, she accepted their resignations.
“Merkel manages to grab the will of the people early enough to make appropriate political decisions, even if it means turning stance…”
The realistic approach of Merkel’s politics can be found not only in personnel assignments, but also in her political platform. “Merkel takes all of the energy out by bear-hugging her opponents and absorbing their issues,” said Andreas Kraemer, the director of the Ecologic Institute in Berlin. Merkel manages to grab the will of the people early enough to make appropriate political decisions, even if it means turning stance. For instance, she abided by a decision made earlier by her former coalition partners, the SPD. When the SPD was in government from 1998 to 2005, a law phasing out all nuclear power plants by 2021 was supported by the government, and the schedule was also accepted by the majority of German people. Yet, later in 2010, when Merkel was re-elected for the second term of Chancellor, she did a U-turn by prolonging the service of nuclear power plants, until a “bridge technology” is developed to rely on renewable energies. On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster erupted, and public opinion soon demanded instant cease on all nuclear power. Merkel made another U-turn, in order to save the CDU from mayhem in the state election of Baden-Wüttemberg, to shut down all nuclear power plants in the country in due course.
Merkel has been well known for her strong-stance on EU matters, especially during the Eurozone crisis; yet back in Germany, she was nicknamed Mutti (mummy). With Germany’s lead in economic achievements, and with a record low unemployment rate, the nation has gained enormous importance in European politics. This year the CDU won the greatest victory since the German reunification. After the election, Merkel said in her victory speech: “Heute wird gefeiert, ab morgen wieder gearbeitet” (Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work again.) The calm speech she made may have reflected her Mutti character.
Other than Merkel, there is still much to talk about concerning the election. First – the left wing parties.
Peer Steinbrück and the SPD’s failure
“Steinbrück’s immaturity in politics earned him various nicknames…”
SPD chair Peer Steinbrück’s performance in the TV election debate was widely reckoned as “not outstanding”. There was very little eye contact between him and the camera, probably due to the fact that he failed to locate where the cameras were. Steinbrück also failed to gain popularity throughout the election campaign, with 25% of an approval rate compared to Merkel’s 63% in April 2013. On a more personal level,you don’t have to be a political scientist to tell the difference between Peer Steinbrück and Angela Merkel. Unlike Merkel’s Mutti character, Peer Steinbrück is known to be outspoken, but was also undermined by a number of blunders he made. For instance, he commented that the Chancellor salary was too low, and the German public interpreted his comment as a potential self pay-rise if he is elected. There is also the issue with Steinbrück’s personal income. He is reported to have made €1.25 million between November 2009 and July 2012 for public speeches, even though he was receiving a salary as an elected member of parliament at the time. His immaturity in politics earned him various nicknames: Pannen-Peer, Problem-Peer and Peerlusconi (see fig. 3), after the former Italian Prime Minister.
As for the number of seats, the SPD gained only 30.5%, compared to the CDU’s 40.5%. The CDU won a remarkable victory over the SPD. This could be explained by the fact that many SPD supporters did not cast their vote, and they did not want to vote for The Left or the CDU, nor did they trust the SPD to do a better job than the current CDU-led government. In fact, although the turnout rate of this year’s elections is higher than last year – 71.5% compared to 70.8% in 2009, it is the second lowest in history.
The SPD became passive after the elections. On the one hand if it chooses to form a grand coalition with the CDU, it could lose some loyal supporters, and even worse, history may repeat itself as in the 2009 elections, where the SPD was marginalised by the CDU; but if the SPD refuses such a coalition, it could be blamed for being a troublemaker. The SPD is indeed in a dilemma.
Between Red-Green-Red, the SPD, Die Grünen and Die Linke
The CDU/CSU needs a coalition partner. We may ask ourselves if there is any possibility of forming a coalition between the Left, the SPD and the Greens. The answer is: highly unlikely, due to three main reasons:
Technical difficulties. First, Die Linke was separated from the SPD in 2007 after former SPD chair Oskar Lafontaine left the SPD in 2005; which explains the friction between SPD and Linke supporters. Therefore, even though both parties have left tendencies, there are still clear differences between them, especially concerning the Eurozone crisis. In fact, there was such coalition between the three parties during Landtagswahl (state elections) in 2009 and 2010, and it was indeed a threat to the CDU, yet no attempts of forming a coalition between the three parties were ever seen on a parliamentary level. This is probably due to the fact that they all worry that their own support rate may drop after doing so.
Die Linke and the Stasi’s past. The Left has certain historical connections with the East German Secret Service, where several members were connected with the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, Ministry for State Security), which made the party unfavourable among liberal voters.
Lack of popular support. According to opinion polls in 2005 and in 2008, most Germans didn’t wish to see a Red-Green-Red coalition. Those approving it was only 10%, and 67% regarded it as a bad idea. In fact, most Germans prefer a grand coalition to any other coalition.
How about the right-wing parties?
The FDP’s epic fail
In the party’s 65-year history, this is the first time the FDP got kicked out of the parliament. Considering the fact that the party actually produced some chancellors in earlier times, this year’s election was indeed an epic fail for the FDP. Philipp Rösler, the former party chair, and also vice chancellor of Germany, is now jobless. He resigned after the failure.
“The first time the FDP got kicked out of the parliament…in 65 years!”
If we compare the figures of approval rate of the CDU/CSU and the FDP, we would notice a sharp drop for the FDP; it was 14.6% in 2009, and only 4.8% this year, while the CDU/CSU had 33.8%, and 41.5% this year. No wonder so many critics commented that the FDP was being sacrificed by the Merkel-led CDU. The same fate may happen again to Merkel’s next coalition partner, and the FDP may plan its revenge in the next elections.
The AfD’s shocking success in its first elections
On small parties, I have to mention the Euro-sceptic AfD – a new political party established barely more than half a year ago. The AfD gained a surprising 4.7% of the vote in its first-time elections. The AfD has a rather narrow agenda when compared to other parties. With its strong anti-euro stance, the party’s main agenda is the elimination of the euro and the restoration of a strong German national currency. The success of the AfD has shown that many Germans are indeed unhappy with the euro, and despite Germany’s participation in Europe’s debt crisis, the problem of explaining the euro to German people remains. The performance of the AfD in the future is definitely worth observing.
So now what?
The victory of the CDU/CSU has shown that most Germans approve Merkel’s conservative economic policy. Meanwhile, the Merkel government has begun the negotiations on forming a coalition with the Greens, or a grand coalition with the SPD. The Greens later turned down the invitation, leaving the SPD the only one reasonable option. Despite the dilemma faced by the SPD, it is clear that the Social Democrats will demand concessions in exchange for governing together with the CDU. The SPD would also wish to introduce minimum wage and a better social welfare system. The SPD and The Greens would also use their advantage of seats in the Bundesrat (Upper House) to counter Merkel’s government when necessary.
Many may thus note that the conventional definition of ”left wing parties” in European politics, especially that of the British, does not really apply to major left wing parties in Germany. The conventional definition of ”right wing parties” does not really apply in Germany either. For instance, when comparing the election platforms between the SPD and the CDU/CSU, we would not find so many differences, especially concerning Eurozone issues. The right wing’s new star – the AfD – has nothing but opposition towards the euro, but not towards the European integration process. Their country being a founding member of the EU, German politicians are in general supportive of the idea of European integration, and therefore support the Eurozone austerity measures. So there is a tendency of major political parties shifting to the centre. For the left and far right parties, redefining their own stances could be a major challenge in the coming years, especially for the right wing FDP and AfD.
“Merkel’s victory may give Germany an upper hand in the negotiations for EU reform…”
It is worth noticing if Merkel will reinstate the plan for reforming the EU, a plan which she did not emphasise much during the election campaign in order to gain maximum domestic support. Merkel’s victory may give Germany an upper hand in the negotiations for EU reform, especially in response to the UK’s reform claim.
One interesting thing I have noticed is that both Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and François Hollande, president of France, immediately sent their congratulations to Merkel after the CDU/ CSU’s victory. The heads of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) all kept silent. For Germany it is very likely that it will remain the most important economic and political leader in EU for some years.
Wong Tsz, from Hong Kong, moved to Europe for MA Euroculture (2010-12) after obtaining his BA in Language and Translation. Currently, he’s a PhD student in Musicology under DFG Research Group ‘Expert Cultures from the 12th to the 16th Century’. Wong Tsz played in various orchestras in Hong Kong and in Europe, including the Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra, Open University of Hong Kong Orchestra, Göttingen University Orchestra, Groningen Students’ Orchestra MIRA, and currently in Academic Orchestra Göttingen AOV. He’s not only keen on playing music but is actively engaged in academic research. His Master’s thesis gives an in-depth study of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under the scope of Orientalism theory by Edward Said. His current PhD project ‘Matteo Ricci in East West Music Exchange’ gives a detailed analysis to trace the early models of music exchange between China and Europe in 16th century.
“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (Germany, Germany above all)…These are the words with which the first of the three stanzas of the Deutschlandliedstart. Regarded as a national anthem from the times of the Märzrevolution in 1848 for the incipient liberal Germans, Deutschlandlied eventually became official with the advent of the Weimar Republic. Its lyrics were a call for unity amongst the fragmented German people, strengthening their common characteristics, and foreseeing a brilliant future together. Its lyrics exalt the convenience of unity both for the good of the individual and of the community. Suffering from misuse and ideological appropriation by the unfortunate regime that followed Weimar, the first two stanzas were sent into exile by the German Federal Republic, a decision that was respected after the reunification, and to-date the exile has been made definitive and transformed to banishment.
The current relevance of this phrase lies in the fact that almost without any fear we can say that within the European family, general esteem towards one of the siblings is higher than that towards the rest. To be more specific, the regard towards Germany is higher than that which exists at many of the other European Union countries, and all but one (perhaps) of those in the €uro club. In a world in which Economy takes precedence over all other considerations, Germany’s seemingly impervious economy has made it a “de facto” role model for its neighbour countries, where following in its footsteps has meant to be walking on solid ground. Besides that, it is worth noticing that in the social sciences (such as Economy or Law) the expression “de facto” can be aligned with the expression “de jure”, which means: “by virtue of Law or by action of the law”, and which may be understood as the formalisation of a certain idea or model. This phenomenon of institutionalisation was what has been suggested in the media, both as modulators and as loudspeakers of the voice of society, as occurring through the entering into the constitutions of some countries of the €uro, which became known as the “Golden Rule” back in 2011. This rule being that there is an alleged unbreakable limit to the indebtedness of the states in order to fight the problems of deficit. This introduction of the “Golden Rule”, was not attributed to the EU or any of the heads of its institutions, but rather to Germany and Chancellor Merkel herself, who was indicated to have, behind the scenes, pushed for such an addition.
Sought or not, wanted or not, accepted or not, Germany’s recent position of influence is a situation from which Germany cannot run away. Consequently, the actions of Chancellor Merkel are scrutinised with a magnifying glass by media and public opinion all around Europe and in the so-called bailed out countries. What we need to know, however, is that it does not end there. The same thing happens when central banker (Jens Weidmann) speaks, or the Constitutional Court (Karlsruhe) decides, every single word of what they say or what they rule is worked through with a fine-toothed comb. As such, the 2013 elections in Germany are regarded to be a “hot potato” (an issue of importance) for everyone, because of those who were not able to participate in the election (i.e. Europeans with a vested interest in German politics), and because of the responsibility for both Europe and Germany that seems to be attached for those that can participate. The run up to the elections depict an interesting combination of expectations and pressures, both internal and external, derived from the role that Germany should play for some and that it has to play for others with regard to Germany and also Europe. Perhaps in a world where the difference between politics and economics is increasingly trivial but still two words with different meanings, could we paraphrase Americans and say “As Germany goes, so goes Europe”? In reality, only time will tell.
Chancellor Merkel, some time ago, started looking for someone with whom to share the responsibility of steering the €uro through the tempest of the crisis. This could be seen as a tactic to avoid falling prey to the Leader’s Isolation Syndrome, which occurs when the leader is only praised by one’s followers and minions for convenience and not by conviction. However, the Kanzlerin, has not achieved this endeavour; her star has not shone this time. Perhaps if she has not found anyone, it is because there is no one with whom she can share that burden. In this sense, the shadow of Germany’s influence has grown so large it leaves everyone else in the shadows. Some may object to the current status quo, but, they cannot go further than that. Neither France nor any other country has the credence that would be required to propose an alternative model for managing Europe. There is no partner in sight, once Paris is out of play, London or Rome would be conceivable alternatives, but none of them is a real possibility. In Rome, the political situation is confusing, the public finances remain a concern, and its economy continues to be in recession. As for London, David Cameron has managed to stall the UK from European integration, taking the country to a position of irrelevance in European issues, and sowing doubts about their future in the European Union and self-excluding the UK from any kind of banking integration process.
The campaign, in which candidates also have to play their game to those outside of Germany, might be the prelude to real European elections, (which will occur next year), where citizens can vote for more than to elect their MEPs. The candidates know this, and as such try to act in accordance. As an example, the “almighty” finance minister (Wolfgang Schäuble), in a recent newspaper article spoke not only for Germans citizens, but he was also speaking for all Europeans (and therefore to the world). He noted that the German people do not want to see a ‘German Europe’ but a ‘European Germany’. What he did not consider perhaps, was of what kind, how strong, and/or with what intensity a ‘European Germany’ will see the rest of the Europeans. Perhaps they do not just want, but need, a different kind of Germany, one willing to assume full responsibility of its position, and determined to exercise the leadership required to pull firmly of the economy of the continent.
This absence of external foreign thinking is something too common in political history. Concerning the present, the introverted attitude of Chancellor Merkel in handling the crisis has been brilliantly described in a recent book by German sociologist Ulrich Beck. Therein, the author highlights the Machiavellian nature of the attitude of the Chancellor during the crisis. He writes and argues inferences such as that she uses delays as a tactic to domesticate the behaviour of the disobedient and unruly, or that due to the current powerful influence of Germany, all measures to ensure and save the single currency (and the EU, some may say) have to conform to German interests.
Therefore, according to the ideas I have exposed and the current situation, and in combination with what Ulrich Beck writes, I believe we face a liability problem in this issue of European politics. The heart of the matter is that this is not the usual kind of liability, but a two-sided one, to and of Merkel.
The first would be that guilt being casted on those to whom the domesticating politics are addressed, who lived beyond their means. Other European countries need to take reforms now, while in Germany those painful reforms were put in place in the 2000s.
The side corresponding to Angela Merkel would be the economic and social shortsightedness she has shown in handling the crisis of the euro, which has overspread and affected many European countries, leading to them questioning the idea of what is the kind of Europe they want?
The shortsightedness of Angela Merkel consists in not learning from past mistakes of others. Many have made the comparison between the Great Depression of the twentieth century to the present crisis. The liability (moral and ideological) that fell on the United States for its policy before the Depression was not too different from the one that has fallen on the Chancellor now. Actually, as far as I know, after the Great Depression until the moment the greatest economy did not practice an expansionary economic policy, the recovery did not reach the other affected economies (that, however, would be a longer and broader discussion).
Anyhow, Angela Merkel might not be entirely at fault; she is partly the daughter of the circumstances she lives in. She is guilty, of course, of doubting and hesitating too much and for too long as Ulrich Beck points out in his book, and I would like to add she is guilty of lack of ambition also, a folly that prevents her thinking beyond the present borders of her country.
Concerning Merkel: Could she be a good leader for Europe? I certainly cannot tell. I just know she would need to think “Für Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit, ebenso Entwicklung und Menschenverstand Europa, Europa über alles.” (For unity and rights and liberty, as well as development and common sense, Europe, Europe above everything) to counterbalance the harmful effects that the current status quo shows to have, because it would not detract from Germany but it would be for their benefit.
FIGHT FOR EUROPE!
Author’s note, following the election results:
Now Merkel has won again, and notwithstanding how questionable the election campaign may have seemed to me, mainly because of the resounding absence of the European idea, it only remains to say, congratulations to you Angela, and good luck to Europe.
Mario Aller San Millán, Contributing writer
Mario is interested in almost everything while being an expert on nothing. Born and raised in northern Spain before moving in, around, and beyond Europe. He is also interested in Politics, especially when allowed to add some pinches of History to it. He loves meeting new people, is an enthusiastic traveller and a (practising) sports freak, but against all predictions he loves being at home. He enjoys reading and music including any combination of both those activities, and also loves cooking to chill out. In times of crises like current, he looks towards the 12 stars and wonders.