Can Europe Make It?

The chancellor of Europe, re-elected

Strengthened by a clear victory in the ballots, Angela Merkel is unlikely to change her austerity course. In the absence of a strong domestic opposition, it is up to the citizens of Europe to challenge her policies.

Steffen Vogel
25 September 2013
Angela triumphans? Demotix/Gonçalo Silva. All rights reserved.

Angela triumphans? Demotix/Gonçalo Silva. All rights reserved.

22 September might be remembered as a bad day for Europe, at a time when bad days are frequent. This Sunday's German general elections saw the expected victory of chancellor Angela Merkel‘s Conservatives (CDU). Merkel missed absolute majority by only a narrow margin. She may stay in office for another four years and will most likely form a coalition government with the Social Democrats (SPD) - who scored second best. This is also a personal victory for Merkel: 38 per cent of conservative supporters said the main factor in their decision was Merkel herself. Strengthened by an easy and unchallenged victory, she will not feel the urge to change her course, especially regarding Europe. And that’s bad news for an already troubled continent.

German Conservatives have always been pro-EU, but seldom less passionate than now. Merkel’s position is clear: protect German interests first and only then worry about the Euro. While her policy seeks to combine both tasks, not least because the common currency serves globally-operating German corporations, she has so far rejected any measures that would make Germany share an additional part of the burden. This would include ending the beggar-thy-neighbour-policy once introduced by Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder.

Berlin’s downward pressure on salaries at home contributes largely to the country’s much-heralded export surpluses, which are won against neighbours like France and Italy. Moreover, and also due to the absence of a common economic policy in the Eurozone, the surpluses are mirrored in deficits for example in Spain, where consumers kept buying German products in the years before the crisis. But this connection remains a taboo in German politics. Berlin’s unwillingness to compromise has so far prevented any truly common European solution. Consequently, the competition between the EU’s member states has increased both in economic and in political terms.

But beside this nationalist tendency, Merkel also tries to enact a programme for the whole continent. In short, this consists of three pillars: first, boost the competitiveness of European corporations by reducing labour costs and dismantling what is seen as an overly generous welfare state; second, attract global capital by guaranteeing fiscal stability via austerity and by providing cheap investments via forced privatisations in the south; and third, increase the flexibility of labour forces at the expense of social security. This amounts to further unleashing capitalism from its social bonds to finally bury western Europe’s post-war consensus. Moreover, it is also a move to prepare for an aggressive competition with developing countries, especially the so called BRICS states; the planned free trade area with the United States is a further step in this direction.

It’s the majority of ordinary Europeans that are set to pay the price for such a strategy – more in the south than in the north, and more in the east than in the west of the continent. How this programme looks like when it is implemented can be studied in full detail in Greece, where austerity is on the way to destroying an entire society.

Feared abroad, loved at home

Following the motto to never waste a good crisis, Merkel and Co. try to establish their course by rooting it deeply in European treaties or binding agreements like the Fiscal Compact. Democracy thereby gets reduced to a soundbite for festive speeches but is ignored in daily politics. It’s no longer the parliament in Athens, Dublin or Lisbon that decides upon their country’s economic and social policy, at the end of the day it’s the Bundestag. German voters shape the political future of many of their fellow Europeans. But they have not yet come to fully realise this.

Today Angela Merkel represents for much of Europe what Margaret Thatcher represented for Great Britain 30 years ago. But unlike the Iron Lady, the German chancellor avoids bold statements and open confrontation. In German politics consensus is traditionally highly valued, and almost all political parties try to occupy a position in what is seen as the political centre. This is one reason why many Germans perceive Merkel as a moderate politician and not as the champion of neoliberalism she really is.

Her victory in the recent elections should therefore not be interpreted as an explicit support for her European policy. Other factors spare her from being contested on these grounds at home. One obvious reason is that the crisis is misrepresented by much of German mainstream media as being a problem of excessive government spending in southern Europe. Thereby both structural causes and the impact of the huge bailout programmes for the financial sector tend to be obscured.

Perhaps even more important is the anxiety about their economic future that plagues German voters, especially in the middle-classes. In recent years, Germany has seen a sharp increase in inequality and precarity, which is largely due to Schröder’s so called Agenda 2010 strategy. It now serves as a blueprint for the austerity programmes in southern Europe and has left deep scars in German society. The growing number of working poor and harsh treatment of the unemployed have sent shockwaves into the middle-class, where a feeling of insecurity prevails.

But not many dare to express this feeling, especially not in the ballot boxes, hoping the storm will leave them untouched if they keep calm. Merkel, who eagerly avoids drastic reforms at home as well as the often aggressive rhetoric of the kind Schröder was known for, is often seen as reassuring and comforting – in sharp contrast with her image abroad. 

Tina Merkel

What also plays into Merkel’s hands is the lack of a strong alternative in parliamentary politics. Despite some criticism, both the Social Democrats and the Greens supported Merkel’s European strategy.

They voted with her each time her policy had to pass the Bundestag, partly out of tactical reasons (in order to be considered as a possible partner in a future coalition government), partly out of the fear of appearing irresponsible (a common suspicion lodged against all parties on the left of the Conservatives) – and also to be sure because influential currents within these parties share certain ideological affinities with the Chancellor. Therefore the demand for a genuinely alternative approach to the European crisis was only articulated by the Left Party. (Although the self-appointed Alternative for Germany (AfD) with its anti-Euro-stance has gained a lot of media attention since it was founded in February.)

In the absence of a true debate, Europe did not play a decisive role in the outcome of these elections, although they in turn might play a decisive role for Europe. Entering her third term in office, Merkel is in a dominant position domestically. Even the crushing defeat of her coalition partner the Liberal Party (FDP), which for the first time since 1949 did not pass the required threshold of 5 per cent and will therefore remain outside the Bundestag for the next four years, will not worry her much.

Merkel can easily replace her former partner in a coalition government with the Social Democrats if she wants. With a gaffe-prone and unpopular candidate and half-hearted pleas for more social justice, the SPD never came close to Merkel’s Conservatives. Now the party must deal with its second lowest result in the history of the Federal Republic and will undergo the troublesome search for a strategy that might allow them to become the leading force in German politics once again. This will make them press for some significant programmatic decisions within a possible grand coalition, for example the introduction of a minimum wage. But neither are the Social Democrats strong enough, nor are they ready to challenge Merkel on European issues. The most that can be expected from them in this regard are rhetorical commitments to growth that will not lead to concrete initiatives.      

Should the Social Democrats enter government, as is widely expected, the ruling majority would have 503 seats in the Bundestag, against only 127 for the two opposition parties. Out of them, the Left scored slightly better than the Greens, who failed to meet their own expectations and now face a difficult debate on programme, personnel and strategic perspective. Several Green party figures, including Chairwoman Claudia Roth, have already resigned.

Although it too did not gain parliamentary representation, the AfD can be satisfied with a result of 4.7 per cent. Situated on the right of the Conservatives, the party has not yet worked out a detailed programme, but its statements display a tendency towards ultra-liberalism in economic terms and an even stronger orientation towards the national interest in political terms. The party will now focus on the European elections in 2014 and might play a role in the coming years. Polls show that most AfD voters are former liberals, which could indicate a shift towards more nationalist attitudes among the wealthy strata. If and how Merkel will react to the new party’s rise remains to be seen. It is possible that, in order to attract some of their voters, she might show even more reluctance towards a further political unification of the EU.

Resistance from below

In recent years, Merkel has proved stubborn when it came potential changes to her austerity-course. Domestic pressure is not going to increase, at least not quickly. Unfortunately, Germany holds the key when it comes to solving the crisis but is not willing to use it. The pressure for a turnaround towards the construction of an EU that is based on solidarity and democracy rather than on competition and the dominance of the big, wealthy nations must come from outside. Merkel would surely accept changes, if sheer necessity forced her to do so, for example after another global crash like the one in 2008. Back in 2009 she had no known objections to the adoption of some Keynesian measures to prevent recession at home – only to switch back to neoliberalism quickly after. Although this scenario is not completely unlikely, given the recrudescent bubbles and the vulnerability of the EU to external shocks, it is also not one that anyone should hope for.

The only remaining option would require that the rest of Europe – or at least an important part of it – joins together to force Germany to cooperate in the interest of a common future. At the moment, this seems out of reach, as European governments are all too eager to stay in line. Even French President François Hollande, who had called for a change of policy in his electoral campaign, is obviously not willing to or capable of challenging the chancellor.

If the continent’s elites fail, the citizens must act. And in fact resistance is growing in an increasing number of European countries. From Iceland in the northwest to Bulgaria in the southeast governments have had to resign over popular unrest. The political leaders of Greece, Portugal or Spain are facing massive protests from their citizens for some months, even years. First attempts to form a coordinated European resistance have been made. Should the movements succeed in keeping the pressure on their governments high – or even increasing it – then some hope remains for a different European future.

Are you currently living in Germany or maybe not, but still are a passionate observer of German politics? We'd be very interested in publishing your thoughts  - do drop us a line at europe (at)!

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