Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How European is Angela Merkel?

Chancellor Abandons Germany's Post-War EU Policy


Angela Merkel has ruffled the feathers of her European partners with her uncompromising response to the Greek debt crisis. Is the chancellor abandoning the post-war German policy of giving European unity precedence over domestic concerns and public opinion?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel isn't one for big speeches, and pathos makes her uncomfortable. But when the chancellor presented the results of the EU summit in Brussels last Friday, she chose uncharacteristically flowery rhetoric. She was pleased with the outcome, she said, smiling, and noted that there was nothing less at stake than the stability of the euro and, more importantly, the very future of the monetary union.

Merkel, with dark rings under her eyes, seemed both exhausted and relieved. She and her fellow European leaders had just spent two days wrangling over what to do about debt-ridden Greece. The German chancellor had fought against the rest of Europe -- and won.

The European Union will not come to Greece's aid on its own. Instead the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will step in first, with Europe only providing bailout funds in an extreme emergency, and only if all the member states agree. It was a victory for Merkel, but one that came at a high price.

It changes Europe's view of Germany, while at the same revealing how much Germany's view of Europe has changed. The German chancellor's approach in the past was to quietly and steadfastly pursue her interests in Brussels with the help of key partners or the European Commission. The ultimate goal was not to isolate Germany within Europe.

A Paradigm Shift

Merkel is now the first chancellor to have abandoned this principle on an important issue. She has made it clear that there are German interests and European interests, and that they are not necessarily the same. It is a paradigm shift in Germany's European policy. And Brussels is not the only place where Merkel is suspected of being more concerned with the coming state parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia than with European unity.

Most striking has been the tone with which she has pursued her tough stance on the Greek question -- almost rude, by Merkel's standards. In a budget speech two weeks ago, she referred to a rule in the European Stability and Growth Pact as "idiotic," even though this supposed idiocy reappears in agreements to which Germany is a party. She even raised the possibility of "excluding a country from the euro zone, if necessary."

Germany's great pro-European chancellors, Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, had consistently expressed their solidarity with their European neighbors, even when it came at a high cost. It was often the Germans who spent a few extra millions to rescue a European summit from failure. They were convinced that it was money well spent, and they were proud to be seen as good Europeans.

While not completely abandoning this position, Merkel now seems to be tying it to tougher conditions. In her government statement on the EU summit last Thursday, she said that the German people had given up the German mark in the confidence that they would be getting a strong euro instead. This confidence, she said, could "not be disappointed under any circumstances."

'Cheap, Anti-European Resentment'

Europe had, until now, been a project of Germany's political leadership -- across party lines. And it was a project to be pursued even against the will of the people, if necessary. The EU would probably not have been expanded eastward if it had been up to the majority of Germans. They would also not have given up the mark for the euro.

Now, however, it suddenly seems as if Germany's European policy were following the instincts of the people and its mouthpiece, the mass circulation newspaper Bild. "Europe's Paymaster? Never Again!," read one of the paper's headlines last week.

Merkel's new course is even alarming members of her own party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "We have to be very careful not to feed into any cheap, anti-European resentment," warns Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the party, and normally one of her allies. "It doesn't make sense for us to be rescuing banks with the argument that they are critical to the system, while Europe, on the other hand, can't find the strength to help a country that is making an effort to clean up its finances," he says. Many in the CDU agree.

Merkel's style has also raised hackles in the Foreign Ministry. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, not exactly known for his quiet demeanor, is worried that it could exacerbate reservations about Europe in Germany. He also fears that Merkel's tone could lead to misunderstandings abroad. His concerns are not unjustified.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn has already accused Berlin of behaving in a way that betrays a lack of solidarity. He said that he sympathized with Germany's fundamental reservations, but added: "I don't understand, however, that more emphasis is placed on fundamental arguments than on the solidarity of the European Union." These are strong words, coming a diplomat and close ally.

From Merkel's perspective, such accusations are unjustified. She argues that her current approach is necessary to prevent further growth of euro-skepticism in Germany. According to Merkel, German citizens' unease about Europe has increased in proportion to the EU's expansion of its competencies. For this reason, she argues, she has to make it clear that Europe is subject to the same rules it has set for itself.

Merkel even sees herself as acting in the tradition of Helmut Kohl. In Brussels, she pointed out that the former chancellor attached great importance to strict rules during the drafting of the Maastricht Treaty, and that this was not well-received by Germany's partners at the time.

When it came to Europe, however, Kohl consistently made foreign policy a priority over domestic political motives. He belonged to a generation for which Europe was a question of war and peace. Merkel, however, sees the concept of Europe as one of costs and benefits. The benefits include, for example, the domestic political points she can score by taking a skeptical tone on Europe. "Europe is having a tough time of it with our chancellor," Bild rejoiced last week.

After experiencing a difficult start to Merkel's second term as chancellor, her team was looking for a popular issue to gloss over the chaos in Berlin. The public image of her coalition government of the CDU and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) is overwhelmingly negative, and the important state parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia is coming up in May. If it loses that election, the coalition could lose its majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament representing the country's 16 states.

'Europe Has to Be Created'

In these circumstances, it would take courage to argue for European community spirit. But having the courage to oppose public opinion isn't one of Merkel's traditional strengths.

That is bad news for Europe. The Continent's integration only happened because German governments pushed for it, and Merkel, during her first four-year term, was no exception.

But would she still have the determination today to push for a fundamental decision like the EU's eastward expansion or the introduction of the euro, even if it meant opposing the will of her own country's population? At the moment, this seems at least doubtful.

Germany was managed differently for decades, as its leaders pursued a strategy set by former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. "Europe has to be created," Adenauer preached. To gain sovereignty for his country, Adenauer accelerated Germany's integration with the West and, in the 1950s, expedited the formation of the European Economic Community, the nucleus of the EU. Adenauer would never have asked himself whether he had the backing of the majority of citizens.

Germany's other post-war chancellors followed his example, consistently moving in the direction of European unity. They reasoned that this would be the only way to eventually overcome the division of Germany. With a clear commitment to integration, Kohl went on to guide the country through the process of reunification and, later, won acceptance for the euro. Compared with the great Europeans, Kohl and Adenauer, Merkel's stature seems relatively small.

However, much has changed since the Kohl era. The EU, with its 27 members, functions differently than a community of 10 or 12 members. Besides, German reunification eliminated an important motive for European integration. Germany has become a "normal" country. Why should it behave differently than its neighbors today?

'Without Solidarity There Is No Union'

Merkel has many strong arguments to support her position. The solution for Greece, which she ultimately championed together with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, means that European countries will save money. It calls upon the IMF to contribute an amount of up to €12 billion ($16 billion), while the Europeans will only be required to come up with the rest. Without this plan, the member states would be looking at paying up to €25 billion for Greece, with Germany expected to pay a quarter of the total.

Another argument in favor of IMF intervention is that the organization has acquired experience as a financial fire department in dealing with crises around the world. Nevertheless, Germany's European partners perceive Merkel's argument in favor of the IMF as an affront. This lack of understanding for the chancellor is particularly pronounced among those experiencing the biggest problems at the moment. Portuguese EU Commission President José Manual Barroso felt obliged to remind the German government of the principles that once accounted for the European idea. "We need both: solidarity and stability," he said. "Without solidarity, there is no union."

As a consequence of Berlin's new stance, old anti-German sentiments are being reawakened across Europe. Merkel and the Germans have already become an object of hatred in Greece, where consumer groups are calling for a boycott of German products. The newspaper To Vima portrayed Merkel as a vampire and wrote: "The Germans are our biggest enemies in Europe."

The international grumbling is causing great anxiety within Merkel's party, particularly among its European policy experts. They fear that the chancellor's course signifies a departure from the CDU's traditional pro-European policies. "I would have liked to see us find a solution for the Greek crisis within the EU," says Günther Krichbaum, the chairman of the Committee on European Affairs in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament. And Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, speaking privately, griped: "We have to ask ourselves whether the CDU is still a pro-European party."

The CDU's pro-European camp isn't troubled by the policy itself so much as by the way it is being presented. Last Monday, the leaders of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, held a meeting to discuss the Greek bailout. One of the attendees was former Finance Minister Theo Waigel, who helped launch the euro in the 1990s.

Waigel said that he would like to see the benefits of the euro, particularly for Germany, become part of the debate. He pointed out that, without the common currency, the financial crisis would have been far more devastating for Germany. To the group's surprise, Edmund Stoiber, who was known for fueling anti-Brussels sentiments during his time as governor of Bavaria, seconded Waigel's remarks when he said: "Theo, you're completely right."

Little Enthusiasm for Europe

Berlin's shift has also been a source of irritation among German MEPs in Brussels. According to Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of the FDP, there has been a "noticeable change in tone, and it has also been felt outside Germany."

Martin Schulz, the German MEP who chairs the Social Democratic group in the European Parliament, is more direct: "Merkel's European policy is apparently oriented toward the domestic political landscape. This wouldn't have happened in the past."

Last Monday evening, Merkel invited the CDU and CSU members of the European Parliament to meet with her at the Chancellery. The guests soon realized that the chancellor showed little enthusiasm for Europe.

When a CSU politician asked whether Merkel had any major European policy initiatives planned, such as a European army, she coolly replied that such bold plans are no longer possible, partly because Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, in its ruling on the Lisbon Treaty, put a stop to further integration steps.

When the MEPs left the Chancellery after their discussion on Europe, they all came away with the same feeling: disenchantment.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

No comments: