Germany: Staid Merkel could help Europe make history
The impacts of Germany’s elections on Sunday could be historic for Europe and its relationship with America if they fuel a new partnership between Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
On the surface, the elections seem stodgy and uneventful. Merkel is likely to win hands down and some of the excitement, at least for Germans, will come for the habitually complicated negotiations for coalition partners.
Germany has been ruled by coalitions since 1950 and building one can take months at the best of times. Things are more complicated now.
Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term, is a one-woman powerhouse but keeps a low profile. Her quiet demeanor and steady hand on Germany’s rudder has built her into a bedrock of German and European stability.
That political caution stands sharply in contrast to President Donald Trump’s flamboyance. It has helped to navigate the European Union through several storms in the past decade, including severe financial crises in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland.
It has also held in check Russia’s revisionist attempts to change post-World War II borders in Europe and the temptation of other EU members to be profligate with German money.
She is an unshaking proponent of diplomatic cooperation among countries, negotiations to end or prevent conflicts, and pooling national sovereignty to solve global problems like climate change and terrorism.
So, her relationship with Trump is cool. Macron of France thinks more like her than Trump but is positioning himself as a bridge between her and the American, especially on security issues and the need to prevent trade conflicts.
That bridging role used to be Britain’s forte because of its traditional special relationship with Washington. But Brexit, the looming exit of Britain from the EU, has encouraged Macron to reap some of the grandeur of being America’s special friend in Europe, though not necessarily Trump’s friend.
The impacts of Merkel’s reelection could make history over time by consolidating a diplomatic alliance between France and Germany powerful enough to strengthen unity among the EU’s 28 members (27 after April 2019).
Importantly, it would help Europe to face down Trump’s high-handed abrasiveness, a revanchist Vladimir Putin, and the sharp teeth of geopolitical challenges from China’s ambitious Xi Jinping.
Just two years ago, Europe was being written off as a declining global actor. Almost every EU member was jittery about the seemingly irresistible rise of nationalists and right-wing anti-immigrant populists.
Macron’s election earlier this year demonstrated that the center continues to hold against populists, even as voters also turn away from the traditional politics of the right and left.
In France, Holland and elsewhere, they turned towards new blood and away from the same elite politicians returning every five years with old promises dressed in different clothes.
Germans will be stodgy next Sunday because they will return the country’s unglamorous “Muti” (mother) Angela to power. But the undercurrent is likely to be very different from the past.
The sharply right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which some critics say has racist neo-Nazi undertones, could win about 11 per cent. For the first time, it could enter parliament with as many as three members.
That is a small number since Germany’s uniquely complicated system allows parliament to have between 500 and 700 seats, depending on how the parties fare and the regions involved. But it is important for local and regional elections in following years.
Just a few months ago, AfD had almost faded from view despite notable gains in some local elections. But it has polled well recently partly because of slippage in ratings for Merkel’s main rival, Howard Schulz of the Social Democrats (SPD). Some analysts think it might do better than the opinion polls because many people do not want to own up to pollsters for supporting such unwholesome views.
The AfD’s possible rise and other factors could make it more difficult for Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) to build an effective coalition quickly.
Smaller parties may fear that the ideological compromises they make to enter the coalition will force them to share responsibility for Merkel’s policy failures over her term.
The tar brush of that shared responsibility at the national level could significantly erode their electoral chances in the country’s 16 “states” or “lander”, where the real economic and political power lies.
Each lander is semi-autonomous, including its own financial institutions, and competes with others to attract business and investments.
Despite her understated appearance, Merkel does have a unique personality as a political operator. Most politicians see having to campaign as the burdensome work of elections in a democracy.
But Merkel seems to enjoy campaigning and exudes warmth towards the hundreds of people she meets at rallies, usually held outdoors. In diplomatic negotiations, she has the inscrutable eyes of a poker shark.
At the start of this year, she seemed to be losing popularity to Schulz, who is well to the her left.
She had been especially hurt by the open-armed embrace of a million refugees mostly from Syria in 2015. Almost all are Muslim Arabs who do not speak German and have an illiberal culture that seems to disrespect women and sees Western liberal morality as decadent.
But she quickly made a deal with Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan agreeing to provide $6 billion in subsidies to prevent the refugees from making the journey to Europe. Then she shut Germany’s doors. Her repentance should pay off on Sunday.