Europe’s default leader has little to show for it

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By Cormac Lucey

Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state and national security in the 1970s, once exclaimed in frustration: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” At the time there was no clear European leader to speak to. If the US wanted to arrange something it would have to separately fix it with the British, the French, the Germans and so on.

Today the Kissinger question has been answered. If the Americans need to call Europe they can contact Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Brexit and the relative decline in the economic positions of France and Italy coupled with Germany’s economic resurgence and Mrs Merkel’s political longevity mean that she is now the go-to person if something needs sorting.

It’s not just the Americans who need an authoritative European voice: us Europeans need one too. When the Fine Gael-led government has needed EU action favourable for Ireland, it has generally turned first to Berlin and its ally in charge there.

As David Cameron vainly attempted to win sufficient concessions from the EU to allow him to persuade voters to reject Brexit in the referendum, he too turned to her. And now that the UK is set to leave the EU, it’s Mrs Merkel that Theresa May seeks out when some serious political haggling is required.

There is no doubt that Mrs Merkel is Europe’s most important political leader. But how good is she really? More often than not, those who seek her intercession end up disappointed. Remember that June 2012 EU summit, which declared that it was imperative to break the “vicious circle between banks and sovereign states”.

Enda Kenny described it as “a game-changer” as he anticipated substantial reductions in the state’s bank debts, yet no formal reduction in those debts ever materialised.

Consider Mr Cameron’s efforts to return from Brussels wearing more than a political fig leaf. Anticipating that the Brexit debate would hinge on immigration, he sought compromises in that area. None of substance were offered and he was forced to big up what everyone could see were very minor concessions.

In the meantime there has been a sea change in European attitudes to immigration. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has introduced plans to restrict illegal immigration that would make illegally crossing borders an offence punishable by one year in jail. But that change has come too late to save Mr Cameron’s bacon or to keep the UK inside the EU. So much for Mrs Merkel’s supposed political prowess. Mrs May has to learn the hard lesson that soft words in Berlin don’t necessarily mean concessions in Brussels.

Mrs Merkel’s domestic performance has hardly been better. Having earned a doctorate for a thesis in quantum chemistry, she can apply intelligence to the base craft of politics. Too often this has led to clever tactics that lack any clear strategic direction. Her personal strategy has been to project low-key competence and to exercise caution.

When she first led her party into a general election, she campaigned with the liberal Free Democratic Party and advanced a classic centre-right political agenda advocating less state intervention and lower taxes. The trouble was that her party lost votes and the desired Christian Democrats/liberal coalition lacked the seats to form a government.

Displaying her tactical flexibility, Mrs Merkel changed direction and formed a “grand coalition” with the left-of-centre Social Democrats. In government she moved her party leftwards and into the centre ground, where she managed to cannibalise the votes of its government partners.

On immigration into Germany, Mrs Merkel displayed the same lack of constancy and the dominance of tactical flexibility. In July 2015 she brought a young Palestinian refugee to tears on TV when she stated that the refugee and her family could be deported: “There are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps,” the chancellor explained. “If we now say, ‘You can all come’ . . . We just cannot manage that.”

Six weeks later, all had changed as she effectively allowed uncontrolled immigration into Germany and declared: “We can manage that.”

The main result of her about-turn was that more than a million refugees arrived in Germany. This put strains on the country’s education system and social services. It has been accompanied, as Mrs Merkel admitted in an interview on Monday, by no-go areas that police and other outsiders can’t visit. And, together with her party’s move into the centre, it has facilitated the startling rise of the hard-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), under leader Alice Weidel (above).

At September’s general election the AfD won 13 per cent of the vote. Mrs Merkel’s party scored 5 per cent less than it won before she it took over in 2002, while the vote of her Social Democratic allies was down 18 per cent over the same period.

While Mrs Merkel’s tactically clever game has left her in office, her low-risk approach means that hers may be one of the longest caretaker administrations. It has brought national drift, European drift and the slow evisceration of allies. Contrast her rule with that of her predecessor, the flamboyant Gerhard Schröder, who pushed through the tough and unpopular labour market reforms that have been the foundation to Germany’s economic success.

Mrs Merkel was fortunate to inherit office after Mr Schröder had done a lot of hard and necessary work on the economy. And she has been astute to projecting an image of seriousness and sobriety. The problem with Mrs Merkel’s tactical manoeuvres is that, looking back, there doesn’t seem to have been any real constancy in her values, only a determination that she should remain at the centre of things.

That helps promote cynicism and a hollowing out of the centre, but contrary to her image, Mrs Merkel has struggled to deliver for her party, for Germany and for the EU.

Published in The Times (Ireland edition)

March 2nd 2018

March 2nd 2018

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