Will Europe Miss Merkel?

Merkel’s continent-wide popularity over the past five years was based partly on a general belief that she had steered Europe out of the Euro crisis, partly on a left-liberal enthusiasm for her migration policies, and partly on a sense that she represented an oasis of stability at a time of acute global populist challenges. More recently, some of these positives have become negatives.

“We don’t yet know”, the analyst and German expert Hans Kundnani wrote in 2018, “whether Merkel will go down in history as the woman who destroyed Europe or saved it”. Three years on, we may be closer to the answer. The critics are becoming louder and the supporters increasingly falling silent. Merkel, says the prominent liberal Princeton political scientist Jan Werner Mueller, “survived by avoiding politics whenever possible and history won’t judge her kindly for it”.  The left-wing sociologist Wolfgang Streeck sees her as a postmodern politician with a premodern, Machiavellian contempt for both causes and people.

The distinctive Merkel method, which impressed most but also infuriated many, has been to triangulate between competing forces, and generally do no more than the bare minimum, at the latest possible moment. In the words of her biographer and Spiegel deputy-editor-in-chief, Dirk Kurbjuweit, ”she waits and waits to see where the train is going and then she jumps on the train”. This approach has characterized not merely her domestic policy, but also more importantly for our purposes, her European strategy. In terms of rhetoric, Merkel has usually privileged constraint over room for maneuver. Her favourite word is ‘alternativlos’, the contention that a particular choice is not in fact a choice.

Perhaps the best known and most sustained example of the Chancellor’s modus operandi has been the agony of the Euro. The escalating sovereign debt crises in Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Irish Republic and especially Greece, following the financial collapse of 2008, represented a mortal threat to the common currency. It was also an opportunity to complete the political union necessary to underpin the Euro, or at least to establish a common fund to shore it up. Merkel showed no interest in the former, demonstrating a complete lack of vision, and opposed the latter as long as she could. It took the commitment of ECB chief Mario Draghi to ‘do what it takes’ in support of the common currency to stabilize the situation. Though Chancellor of the most powerful state in the Eurozone, Merkel did not lead, she followed.

The Pressure to Change Course Was Never Quite Enough

Likewise, she was slow to grasp the growing belligerence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007 met with no response. A year later, she was one of those blocking an accession plan for Ukraine and Georgia at the NATO summit in Bucharest. This emboldened Russia to launch its attack on Georgia not long after. Then, in 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and intervened in Eastern Ukraine. This time, Merkel did react with meaningful economic sanctions, but she was very slow to authorize the necessary increase in German defence expenditure, which still lags well behind its alliance commitments. Above all, Merkel refused to cancel the controversial Nordstream projects, pipelines bringing energy directly from Russia to Germany, which are regarded as deeply threatening to the security of Poland. The pressure to change course, though substantial, was never quite enough to trump countervailing domestic economic interests.

Merkel’s continent-wide popularity over the past five years was based partly on a general belief that she had steered Europe out of the Euro crisis, partly on a left-liberal enthusiasm for her migration policies.

What is often forgotten, though, is the extent to which Merkel sometimes made very radical and unexpected decisions. The first sign of this was in 2011. After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Merkel announced unilaterally that Germany was bailing out of nuclear power. That same year, she refused to join the NAT0 coalition intervention to prevent Libyan dictator Ghaddafi from massacring his own population. This was a major step for a country which set such store by alliance solidarity. (Admittedly, Germany was not the only country to act thus over Libya, so did the otherwise NATO-loyal Poland). Then in the fall of 2015, Merkel allowed about a million, mostly Syrian refugees, to settle in Germany, effectively giving them access to the entire European Union.

An Oasis of Stability at a Time of Global Populists?

Merkel’s continent-wide popularity over the past five years was based partly on a general belief that she had steered Europe out of the Euro crisis, partly on a left-liberal enthusiasm for her migration policies, and partly on a sense that she represented an oasis of stability at a time of acute global populist challenges. Her personal dignity in the face of Trump’s insults and bombast was indeed inspiring. In Britain, many people, especially those who had voted to remain in the European Union, contrasted Merkel’s calm style with the apparent bumbling of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. At the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, this sentiment found its most vivid expression in the veteran journalist John Kampfner’s book Why the Germans Do it Better (2020).

More recently, some of these positives have become negatives. Whatever one makes of Merkel’s decision to admit the refugees, there can be no doubt that it fuelled not merely populism within European countries, but also greatly increased tensions between them, deepening the divide separating the eastern and western halves of the union. As for the pandemic, Germany is now struggling to cope with the ‘third wave’, its vaccination program is stuttering, and suddenly it is the much-derided British who are ahead.

More recently, some of these positives have become negatives. Whatever one makes of Merkel’s decision to admit the refugees, there can be no doubt that it fuelled not merely populism within European countries.

Meanwhile, the greatest challenge to face the west, that of the PRC, emerged on Merkel’s watch. Though she was in good company – for example with Britain’s David Cameron and George Osborne – Merkel was one of the most prominent protagonists of the failed policy of economic engagement with China, which was based on the mistaken assumption that it would lead to political liberalization there.

This helped to drive Germany’s manufacturing boom. A blind eye was turned not only to the growing military challenge in East Asia but also to the grievous human rights abuses of the regime. This has now come back to haunt Germany, as it faces calls from Washington to uproot Huawei from its critical infrastructure and calls for EU sanctions over the treatment of Uighur Muslims grow.

Merkel was one of the most prominent protagonists of the failed policy of economic engagement with China, which was based on the mistaken assumption that it would lead to political liberalization there.

Merkel Left Macron in the Rain

Whether we will miss all this when the Chancellor stands down later this year, if she stands down, depends very much on two questions. First, what were the alternatives to Angela Merkel, 2005-2021? Secondly, who will her successor be? We know the answers to the first and have a shrewd idea about the second.

Merkel was by no means as ‘alternativlos’ in Germany as we have come to think in retrospect. To be sure, Merkel captured the Chancellery by beating SPD leader Gerhard Schröder. He was certainly a much weaker candidate, a sympathiser with Vladimir Putin who now actually chairs the Russian energy giant Rosneft. She was re-elected after besting the SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was also a good deal ‘softer’ on Russia. She then defeated Peer Steinbrück, who was in many ways more of a hawk on foreign policy, supporting the Libyan intervention and something like Eurobonds to shore up the common foreign policy. Likewise, when she crushed Martin Schulz in the most recent federal election, her challenger was certainly the more ardent European, and he was no slouch on Russia either. So in the last two contests, at least, there was a viable ‘alternative’ to Merkel from the point of view of those who – like the present author – would have wished for a more robust policy towards Russia and a more whole-hearted commitment to the political unification of our continent.

Moreover, the real problem was the way in which she blocked genuine European alternatives to her cautious policy. This was most vividly demonstrated by her treatment of the new French President Emmanuel Macron. When elected, he was buzzing with ideas for the transformation of the EU and the creation of truly ‘European Sovereignty’. There were practical problems with his vision to be sure, but it was by far the most important show in town the continent had seen for a decade, if not longer. Macron’s idea of a common budget for the Eurozone would have been, for example, a big step towards a united Europe. Even allowing for unforeseen delays in forming a German government after the 2017 election, Merkel’s response was shameful. She left Macron in the rain for so long, and avoided giving him a concrete reply to his reform proposals, that the bedraggled French President was eventually overtaken by domestic protests. Today, unless he can make some sort of radical recovery, he is sadly a busted flush in European politics. Merkel simply wore him down. Perhaps she did not mean to, but she did.

No Sings of Radical Changes after the Elections in Germany

There is no guarantee that whoever follows the Chancellor in the CDU will be any better. Her designated successor, the North Rhine Westphalian Minister President Armin Laschet, shares Merkel’s calm temperament, to be sure, but is softer on Russia and China than she is. Nor is there any sign that he would do any of the radical things which are necessary to shore up the European project. It is hard to see him as an improvement.

More generally, it is unclear whether Merkel, who has genuinely tried to combat the forces of extremism, did not ultimately encourage them, although unintentionally. Her migration policies led to a substantial increase in far right sentiment. She did too little to tackle the Hungarian and Polish governments over rule of law issues. The danger is that these forces will achieve their breakthrough after the Chancellor’s departure, perhaps with the election of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election 2022.

More generally, it is unclear whether Merkel, who has genuinely tried to combat the forces of extremism, did not ultimately encourage them, although unintentionally.

So whatever our frustrations with Angela Merkel, we should be careful what we wish for. The last word should perhaps be left to Yanis Varoufakis, one of the most prominent victims of her austerity policies. “She was a catastrophe”, says the former Greek finance minister, “and she will be missed because who comes next will certainly be worse”.

Brendan Simms

is Professor of the History of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge and President of the Project for Democratic Union, which advocates a full political union of the eurozone on Anglo-American constitutional principles. His research focuses on the history of European foreign policy. He has written a variety of books and articles on this subject.

He is the author of “Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present Day” (Penguin Press, 2013) and “The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men who Decided the Battle of Waterloo” (Penguin Press, 2014), which is about the King’s German Legion as a prototype for a future European army.

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