Germany's Angela Merkel, at history’s crucible

Today, the German chancellor's task is to emerge from the cracks of the euro as the builder of a united Europe; hopefully, the failures her new term might have in store for her will not eclipse past successes.

Angela Merkel (photo credit: Reuters)
Angela Merkel
(photo credit: Reuters)
Having landed in Tel Aviv back when he was West Berlin’s mayor, Willy Brandt was taken to the Mann Auditorium, where he said he was impressed that Israel named its largest concert hall after a German.
When told that the structure commemorated not Thomas, the celebrated novelist, but Frederick, a middle-aged Jew from Philadelphia, Brandt asked what the Mann he hadn’t heard of might have written. “A check,” he was told.
Since then, Germany itself has become a check-writer as well as political antithesis and social envy of the continent it lynchpins, a status personified by Angela Merkel, the unassuming woman who last week emerged as the century’s most successful politician.
Having won handily her third consecutive general election, Merkel’s incumbency of eight years can now potentially grow by another four, a feat that would exceed Tony Blair’s decade and Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years in power, and place Merkel in a position to try and reach François Mitterrand’s 14 years, and her mentor Helmut Kohl’s 16 years in power.
The vote constitutes a note of thanks for Merkel’s delivery of stability, responsibility and predictability, crowned by a minimal unemployment rate of 5.3 percent, a 5.9%- of-GDP current-account surplus, and a trade surplus of more than $170 billion, in stark contrast to what is happening elsewhere in Europe.
Merkel’s Germany is culturally vibrant and socially docile, with Berlin established as a united Europe’s beating heart, while this country of prosperity, tolerance and generosity avoids the kind of rioting seen in recent years in Paris, London and Stockholm.
Then again, for her chancellorship to survive its third term Merkel might have to produce traits she has so far failed to display.
THE IMMEDIATE task facing Merkel, cobbling together a coalition, is complex enough, though the simplest of the challenges that await her.
The chancellor’s center-right Christian Democrats won 42% of the electorate, while their main rival, the center-left Social Democrats, made do with 26%. This kind of decisive gap on the party level, coupled with 70% approval ratings for Merkel personally, defies trends elsewhere in the West, where leaders are mostly beleaguered, unpopular and weak.
On the other hand, with all due respect to the size of her victory, Merkel must harness partners for her new government. Judging by the constraints she now faces, the coalition she is likely to create might ultimately trigger her political decline.
Ironically, the size of Merkel’s victory complicates her coalition-building effort, since it came at the expense of her natural coalition ally, the Free Democrats’s economic liberals, whose 4.8% of the electorate fell just short of Germany’s 5% threshold. A similar fate befell the young Alternative for Germany, which promised to undo the euro and end Germany’s financing of bailout plans for southern Europe’s ailing economies.
Between them, the two parties siphoned nearly one in 10 voters, thus depriving Merkel of the kind of conservative partners with whom she might have ruled comfortably, the way she did the past four years with the Free Democrats. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the Greens and the farleft Linke, which have won between them some 17%, are ideologically unworkable for Merkel. That is why she is expected to team up with the Social Democrats (SPD).
Merkel already was once in such a broad coalition, back when she rose to power in 2005. While that worked well for Germany and for Merkel, it damaged her partners, who were seen as someone else’s apprentices. Now back in Merkel’s picture as her only realistic coalition partners, the SPD is expected to make demands she can doubtfully afford to heed.
The SPD demands a minimum wage law based on an election promise of an hourly 8.5 euros. In addition, the party seeks new social spending at home and greater German allocations for the war on other Europeans’ youth joblessness, which in France, Italy and Spain is respectively 26, 40 and 56%, as opposed to Germany’s 7.7%.
Such causes are problematic for Merkel both ideologically and practically. Ideologically, they challenge her small government and low taxation convictions, while on the practical level they would require the kind of spending that can ruin Merkel’s universally applauded budgetary discipline and economic performance.
WHILE THE economies of Britain, France, the US and Japan accrued mounting debts and yawning deficits, Merkel’s frugality kept Germany well in the black. Opening the fiscal faucets now, in line with the SPD’s demands, might lead Germany into the debt tunnel where its neighbors arrived last decade, and remain lost to this day.
Worse, implying that Germany is now prepared to display greater flexibility on bailouts might make the continent’s already severe debt crisis spiral out of control. Since the outbreak of the Greek crisis last decade, Merkel has been accused of abandoning the EU’s weaker economies to their devices.
Merkel responded bravely when she traveled to Greece last year, though she knew she would be greeted there by thousands of angry and even obscene protesters.
When she emerged it was evident that Merkel had jumped into the flames, which is why pundits agreed she had become the strongest person in Europe. However, she did not reinvent the situation. On the one hand, Germany remained the main source of Greece’s – and everyone else’s – bailout plans, and Merkel promised to oppose Greece’s ouster from the euro zone. On the other hand, she made no concessions concerning the draconian austerity measures imposed on Greece in turn for its bailout.
Indeed, that is what Merkelism is about: no magic, no fireworks, no improvisation, humor or wit, only a lot of hard work, consistency and polite resolve all aimed at upholding what she inherited from others.
For her first eight years, this formula worked well. Now, however, history is likely to demand of Merkel more than merely preserving other people’s legacies.
THE THIRD term curse, whereby leaders like Thatcher, Blair and Kohl ran out of wisdom, humility and luck, would menace Merkel even if circumstances had not been as ominous as they are.
Alas, besides standing to be pressured from within her own government to overspend, the problems outside will only worsen – as southern Europe’s ailments will refuse to go away and in fact, spread further, to some of the post-communist lands and possibly to Italy as well. That is when history will come knocking and demand of Merkel what until now she did not display: originality, inventiveness and charisma.
Until now, Merkel’s apparent lack of these was part of her success. The euro was already there, others had invented it, and Merkel’s task was to preserve it. The values of diligence, frugality and caution with which she is identified had also been there before Merkel. And as for charisma and pizzazz, the German voter seemed uninterested in them.
As long as her task was to preserve things, Merkel’s colorless personality and unassuming East German origins sufficed, and even charmed. Now they won’t.
NOT ONLY will Europe’s problems demand historic action – so will Germany’s.
The night the Berlin Wall fell, Willy Brandt memorably said: “Now, what belongs together will grow together.”
The Germans indeed came together, but they did not grow. Instead, they shrank. With German women having an average of 1.4 children, demographers warn that at its current fertility rate Germany will in less than a half-century lose one fifth of its population.
Whether this has to do with the German economy’s low growth rate remains to be seen, but in the long run a shrinking nation clearly can’t fuel a growing economy.
With the population aging rapidly – today’s 30% elderly will be 50% in two decades – and with immigration causing social gaps and frictions, Merkel will be required to do more than analyze the situation, as she did when she declared multiculturalism a failure. Now Merkel will be expected not just to withstand history, but to shape it, the way Kohl did when he used the end of the Cold War to reunite Germany, the way Konrad Adenauer did when he looked west and fathered the New Germany, and the way Brandt did when he looked east and launched Ostpolitik.
Can Merkel affect Germany’s long-term course? Can she, for instance, inspire young Germans to have more children, as the situation clearly demands, even while she is herself a childless career woman? Will she have the vision to lead Europe to a new path, which could involve the euro’s abandonment, a twotrack currency or full fiscal unification? Until now, Merkel has been so short of new ideas that her election slogan was simply “Chancellor.” Now she will have to introduce and market ideas, if she is to be remembered as a historic leader.
Merkel emerged from within the cracks of the fallen Berlin Wall, first as a spokesperson for the last East German government, then as a lawmaker, minister and Kohl’s protégé, and finally as the improbable leader of a reunited Germany. Today, her task is to emerge from the cracks of the euro as the builder of a united Europe. Hopefully, the failures that her new term might have in store for her will not eclipse the successes that preceded it.