Global Affairs

Merkel's dimming star is also Europe's tragedy

LONDON • Barely a week ago, she was still hailed as the Western world's real leader, the only politician not only ready to speak the truth to US President Donald Trump, but also willing to outline an alternative and attractive vision of the world vastly different from that offered by that supposed curmudgeon in the White House.

And back in her home country she was affectionately known as simply "mutti", the mother of a nation which felt both smug and reassured as long as she was in charge.

But a week is a long time in politics. For German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent failure to form a government a full two months after holding a general election has suddenly left her future hanging in the balance, and plunged both Germany and Europe into a new era of uncertainty.

It would be wrong to claim that Germany is about to cease being what it has been for many decades: one of Europe's most stable nations. And the chances are still better than even that, in one shape or another, Chancellor Merkel will remain in office, at least for much of the coming year.

Still, the latest political tremors from Berlin are the equivalent of an earthquake in the rest of Europe. For they serve as an unwelcome reminder of the basic fact that Germany is not immune to the populist wave now sweeping the European continent, and that the Germans alone cannot be relied upon to provide the engine required to regenerate Europe's economy, or overhaul the continent's political arrangements.

In that respect, what still appears as small trouble in Germany amounts to very big trouble for the rest of Europe.

Most of those who have the privilege of seeing Dr Merkel in action go away feeling puzzled. On the one hand, her efficient and savvy 12 years' stewardship of Europe's biggest country and biggest economy is a huge achievement. So is her almost natural ability to tower over a domestic political system which remains male-dominated and cliquish; the number of women elected to Germany's federal Parliament in the latest general election in September actually went down considerably, bucking a Europewide trend.

But at the same time, the woman who has become the public face of Germany is actually a very dull speaker; her public pronouncements are laden with boring cliches and stock phrases, coming across like they have been put together by a pre-programmed word-processing software.


She is also an awful electoral campaigner; in all the three general elections she fought as leader, her party's score ended up a few percentage points lower than opinion polls indicated.

Dr Merkel's greater strength is that she has no ideology. Hers is the government of pragmatism, of practising the art of the possible rather than the desirable; she is the closest spiritual heir of Konrad Adenauer, the first leader of post-war Germany, whose political slogan was "no experiments".

Whenever a crisis erupts, Chancellor Merkel's initial response is not to have a response; she waits until every argument has been heard and every other politician has had his or her say, and only then comes up with a compromise proposal which is presented as not only logical, but also as the only viable one.

That does not mean that the German leader lacks political courage. She stood up to Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, despite the fact that the smartest way to protect German business interests would have been to pretend that nothing had happened.

She persuaded German legislators to release huge amounts of cash to bail out Greece and other European Union countries affected by the euro financial crisis. And she is a fierce believer in the need for closer European cooperation, regardless of how this plays with the electorate. It was this combination of firmness with sheer predictability, plus her longevity in politics, which earned Dr Merkel her reputation as Europe's political anchor.

But it was precisely that "steady-as-it-goes" reputation which also managed to obscure some fundamental flaws in her way of running her country, and even deeper fractures inside the body politic of Germany itself which - instead of dealing with them - she merely papered over.

To start with, Dr Merkel suffers from the disease of most successful veteran politicians: an unwillingness to let go of office, coupled with an inability to admit her own errors. She has refused to groom a successor and has systematically eliminated any potential rival within her party.

Yet instead of this giving her some peace of mind, it virtually guarantees that, even if she overcomes the current coalition-forming difficulties and leads a new government, she will be beset over the next few years by machinations among her rivals, precisely the opposite of what an elder statesman like her should expect.

And she still refuses to accept that her 2015 decision to open Germany's borders to approximately one million asylum-seekers from the Middle East was a catastrophic error which will overshadow her historic record for ever. Instead, all Dr Merkel is prepared to vow is that the borders will "never again" be thrown open, without explaining why, if she's so proud of what she's done, she is now so keen to persuade everyone that this won't ever be repeated.

More importantly, Dr Merkel is a destroyer of other political parties; like a banyan tree which grows and then strangles its host tree, so she lures coalition partners into her governments, only to then destroy them with her amazing knack of claiming responsibility for any popular initiative, while passing on the blame to others for any unpopular measure.

The Free Democratic Party, a centrist party which supported one Merkel Cabinet, was rewarded for its efforts by being wiped out of Parliament; the main opposition, the Social Democratic Party which supported Dr Merkel's outgoing government, has now slumped to its lowest electoral score in a century.

The Free Democrats scuppered the latest coalition talks precisely because they feared they would be lured into another trap of this kind, and it was Dr Merkel's curious inability to foresee this difficulty which contributed to the current political stalemate.

But probably Dr Merkel's biggest failure is her unwillingness to acknowledge that the old German federal republic in which two main parties alternated in power with the help of a third smaller party and all politicians converged towards a centrist consensus is now dead.

Germany's new Parliament not only has six different political movements, but also contains two parties - the communists from the former East Germany and the nationalist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany - which are regarded as beyond the pale by mainstream politicians.

And whether Dr Merkel likes it or not, the fact remains that almost one in four of Germany's electorate opted to support one of these two pariahs.

She will probably cling to power, either at the head of a new "grand coalition" with the opposition Socialists, or by leading a minority government, tacitly supported by the opposition.

But one should make no mistake about what this means: a chancellor who is in office, yet not in government, a leader who holds the reins of power, while the effectiveness of her government is decided by people who are not in power.

Germany's politicians were always prone to be parochial, to look at their own domestic problems, to the exclusion of all others; that trend will now be accentuated.

And the consequences for Europe could be dire. For the continent is facing a unique moment, one in which a newly elected, energetic French President is offering Germany a deal, by which France will give up more of its sovereignty, in return for a German concession on the management of the euro currency.

It is a key historic call which won't be repeated; if the French return empty-handed, it won't be long before French President Emmanuel Macron sees his popularity crumble at home, and his reform programme derailed.

Yet it now looks increasingly unlikely that the German Chancellor would be able to reciprocate; indeed, it is unlikely that she may even be in office by the end of next year. That is the European tragedy which is now unfolding before our eyes.

"It's better not to govern than to govern in the wrong way" is what Mr Christian Lindner, the leader of Germany's Free Democrats, said when he pulled his party out of the latest coalition talks with the Chancellor.

This may well turn out to be the appropriate epitaph on Dr Merkel's last term in office.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline Merkel's dimming star is also Europe's tragedy. Subscribe