The power of Merkiavelli: Angela Merkel’s hesitation in the Euro-crisis

Hesitation as a means of coercion – that is Merkiavelli’s method. Only one fate is worse than being overwhelmed by German money and that is not being overwhelmed by German money. Power grounded in the economy has no need to invade and yet is ubiquitous.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely regarded as the uncrowned queen of Europe. If we inquire into the basis of her power we become aware of one characteristic feature of her effectiveness: her characteristic quality is a tactical adroitness that might well be deemed Machiavellian. The Prince, Machiavelli believed, must only stick to what he said yesterday if it brings him positive advantages today. Transferring this to the present situation would produce the maxim: today you can do the opposite of what you proclaimed yesterday, if it improves your own chances in the next election.

Thus Merkel fought long and hard to extend the working lives of the German nuclear power stations while calmly accepting a possible exit from Europe. Following the catastrophe at the Fukushima reactor she did an about face and approved an end to nuclear energy and a new commitment to Europe. Since then she has showed herself to be a master of ‘last-minute rescues’. Yesterday she said: ‘Eurobonds? Over my dead body!’ Today she instructs finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to look for a way out of or around the financial crisis that includes tolerating direct credits from the ECB to participating banks and states, credits that in the last analysis have to be paid for in part by the German taxpayer.

Demotix/Reynaldo C. Paganelli. All rights reserved.

The Merkiavelli model

The political affinity between Merkel and Machiavelli – which I think of as the Merkiavelli model – is based on four mutually complementary components.

First, Germany is the strongest and wealthiest economy in the EU. Because of the credit crunch, all the debtor nations depend on Germany’s willingness to act as guarantor for the necessary credits. All this is trivial in power terms and tells us nothing about Merkel’s Machiavellian politics. The latter arise from the fact that Merkel has positioned herself between the Europe builders and the orthodox adherents of the nation state without taking either side – or rather, she keeps both options open. She neither identifies with the pro-Europeans (whether at home or abroad) who call for binding German commitments, nor does she support the Eurosceptics, who wish to refuse all assistance. Instead, and this is the Merkiavellian point, Merkel links German willingness to provide credit with the willingness of the debtor nations to satisfy the conditions of German stability policies. This is Merkiavelli’s first principle: on the subject of German money to assist the debtor nations, her position is neither a clear Yes or a clear No but a clear Yes and No.

Second, how can this paradoxical stance be translated into practice? At this point, Machiavelli would have called for virtù, i.e. prowess, political energy and the thirst for action. But here we come to a second point. Merkiavelli’s power is founded on her circumspection, the desire to do nothing. This art of deliberate hesitation, a combination of indifference, the rejection of Europe and the commitment to Europe, is at the root of the German stance in a crisis-ridden Europe.

Hesitation as a means of coercion – that is Merkiavelli’s method. This coercion is not the aggressive incursion of German money but the opposite. It is the threat of withdrawal, delay and the refusal of credit. If Germany withholds its consent, the ruin of the debtor nations is inevitable. Only one fate is worse than being overwhelmed by German money and that is not being overwhelmed by German money.

Of course there are many reasons to hesitate: the contemporary world is so complex that nobody can grasp it; often, the only choice left is the one between incalculably risky alternatives. Yet, at the same time, these reasons justify hesitation as a strategy of power. This type of involuntary domination, legitimated as it is by a hymn to austerity, has been perfected by Angela Merkel. The European landscape of power is now being transformed by the epitome of unpolitical activity, i.e. doing nothing at all. By this means Germany’s rise to the position of hegemonic power in Europe has been both advanced and concealed. That is the tactic of which Merkel is the master and which might indeed have come straight out of Machiavelli.

Thus the new German power in Europe is not based as in former times on force as the ultima ratio. It has no need of weapons to impose its will on other states. If only for this reason, all talk of the ‘Fourth Reich’ is absurd. Furthermore, power that is grounded in the economy is far more mobile. It has no need to invade and yet is ubiquitous.

The domestic politics litmus test

Third, this is how Germany has succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of combining national electability and its role as Europe builder. But that also means that all measures designed to save the euro and the European Union must begin by passing the test of proving their suitability for domestic politics, i.e. of satisfying the question whether they will promote German interests and Merkel’s own position. The more critical of Europe the Germans become, the more they feel beleaguered by debtor nations who want nothing better than to make free with the money in German pockets, the harder it will become to disentangle the mess.

Demotix/Gonçalo Silva. All rights reserved.

Merkiavelli has now responded to this problem by producing her trump card – the idea of a German Europe. Domestically, the Chancellor soothes the Germans who are in a rising panic about their pensions, their houses and their economic miracle by donning a mien of Protestant severity and administering doses of ‘No’s’ at regular intervals. By adopting such a policy she has advanced to the position of Europe’s schoolmistress. At the same time, in foreign affairs she adopts a stance of ‘European responsibility’ by obtaining the support of the Eurozone nations through a policy of the lesser evil. Her siren call is: better a German euro than no euro at all.

In this sense too Merkel has proved to be an astute disciple of Machiavelli. Is it better to be ‘loved or feared?’ he had inquired in The Prince. His answer is that ‘one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting’.[1] Angela Merkel may be said to apply this principle selectively. Abroad she is to be feared, at home she should be loved – perhaps because she has taught foreign countries to fear. Brutal neo-liberalism to the outside world, consensus with a social-democratic tinge at home – that is the successful formula which has enabled Merkel consistently to expand her own position of power and that of Germany as well.

Fiscal Compact, necessità and occasione

Fourth, Merkel wants to prescribe what actions should be taken by Germany’s partners and even stipulate that they should adopt what passes in Germany for the magic formula for politics and the economy. The German mantra runs: save, save in the interests of stability. The political reality is unmasked as the good housekeeping practices of the famous or notorious ‘Swabian housewife’. However, these tend to turn quickly into radical cuts in the resources available for pensions, education, research, infrastructure, etc. We are faced here with a hardnosed neo-liberalism that is now to be built into the European constitution in the shape of the Fiscal Compact – bypassing the (feeble) European public sphere in the process.

These then are the four components of Merkiavellism – the combination of nation-state orthodoxy and Europe-building, the art of hesitation as a means of coercion, the primacy of national electability and lastly the German culture of stability. They mutually reinforce one another and constitute the core of the power at the heart of a German Europe. There is even a parallel for Machiavelli’s necessità, the historical emergency to which the Prince must be able to respond. This is the idea of Germany as what Thomas Schmid (editor of the newspaper Die Welt) calls the ‘good-natured hegemon,’ who finds him/herself compelled to put the need to deal with imminent danger above the fact that certain actions are forbidden by law. In order to extend German austerity policies throughout Europe as a whole, democratic norms may have to be relaxed or subverted according to Merkiavelli.

At the same time, we perceive once again that Germany’s rise to the position of the leading power in ‘the German Europe’ is not the consequence of a secret master plan, cunningly conceived and adroitly executed. At least to begin with, it was the involuntary and unplanned product of the financial crisis and its anticipation of disaster. As matters progressed, we may suspect from the way in which they developed that a more conscious element of planning did enter into it. The Chancellor saw the crisis as her occasione, ‘the propitious moment’. A combination of fortuna and Merkiavellian virtù enabled her to seize the historic opportunity and profit from it both domestically and in foreign relations. Admittedly, something of an internal opposition is building, consisting of those who take the view that the rapid process of Europeanization disregards the rights of the German parliament and is therefore incompatible with the Basic Law. But Merkel has cleverly managed to turn even these bastions of resistance to her own advantage by integrating them into her policy of taming the opposition by means of her delaying tactics. Once again she is doubly successful; she has achieved more power in Europe and greater popularity at home, enjoying the favour of the German voter.

To be or not to be

The Merkiavelli method may well gradually reach its own limits. After all, the German policy of austerity has yet to show any successes – quite the contrary, in fact. The debt crisis now threatens to engulf Spain, Italy and perhaps even France. The poor are becoming even poorer, the middle classes are threatened with decline and up to now there has been no light at the end of the tunnel. In this case too, then, power may well lead to the formation of a countervailing-force, especially now that with Nicolas Sarkozy’s departure, Angela Merkel has lost an important ally. The arrival of his successor François Hollande has brought a noticeable shift in the balance of power. Representatives of the debtor nations have been able to convene meetings with the Europe builders in Brussels and Frankfurt in order to find an alternative to the frequently populist austerity policies of Angela Merkel (and also Philipp Rösler, the Free-Democrat Minister of Economics and Technology), which are so clearly aimed at the German electorate with its ingrained fear of inflation. These meetings are designed to rethink the function of the ECB and persuade it to direct its efforts towards a policy of growth along the lines of the stance adopted by the US Federal Reserve.

But there is also the possibility of another scenario, namely that of a duel between Angela Merkiavelli, the hesitating European, and the Social Democratic chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück, the passionate ‘checkmate player’, who discovers his role as a European Willy Brandt (Former German Chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 1971). While Brandt’s formula for success was ‘change through rapprochement’, Steinbrück’s could be: more freedom, more social security, and more democracy – through Europe. If that was the case we might (contrary to our expectations) see a competition between two pro-Europeans trying to outbid each other. Either Steinbrück manages to checkmate Merkiavelli through his approach to Europe or Merkiavelli wins because she discovers the power-strategic significance of the European idea and converts to being the founder of the United States of Europe.

In any case: Germany is facing the question of the existence or non-existence of Europe. Germany has become simply too powerful to be able to have the luxury of not deciding.

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Parts of this essay are taken from Beck’s most recent book Das deutsche Europa (Suhrkamp 2012). The English translation (German Europe; trans Rodney Livingstone) is forthcoming in 2013. A similar essay was published in German in Der Spiegel (41/2012).

 


 

[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Luigi Ricci, New York: Mentor 1952 [1935]: 98.

About the author

Ulrich Beck is Professor of Sociology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. Since 1997 he is British Journal of Sociology Visiting Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK and since 2011 he is also Professor at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, France.

His recent books include Cosmopolitan Europe (together with Edgar Grande) (Polity Press 2007), World at Risk (Polity Press 2009), A God of One’s Own (Polity Press 2010), Twenty Observations on a World in Turmoil (Polity Press 2012), Distant Love (together with Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim) (Polity Press 2013) and German Europe (Polity Press 2013).