Can Europe Make It?

The eternal Chancellor

Is Germany ready for a new ‘social contract’, more adequate to the global age? Or does it want to continue under the comfortable protection of a reassuring Mutti?

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
26 September 2017

CDU Gen.Sec. Peter Tauber and Angela Merkel in party HQ for a meeting on Germany's election results, 25 September 2017. Michael Kappeler/Press Association. All rights reserved.She is known as die Mutti, ‘the mama’, and she is once again at the helm of Germany, in spite of a far from exciting election performance.

Do German citizens truly need a mother to guide them through the perils of the global age? With or (now much more likely) without the support of a Grand Coalition, Angela Merkel might stay in power until 2021, which would mean 16 years as Chancellor, even more than Adenauer (14 years) and on a par with her mentor, Helmut Kohl. Is this good for Germany and for Europe itself, which is sometimes regarded as slightly more than an ‘appendage’ of Germany and its old partner, France? These polls demonstrate that, beyond appearances, Germany does have problems, which is not a good omen for the ‘Old Continent’ as a whole.

By contrast with a stereotypical media representation, not everything is alright in the Bundesrepublik’s economy. First of all, there is no economic miracle. In the years 2013-17 economic growth has been rather modest, unless we consider a rate of 1.5-2% an outstanding achievement. Furthermore, a large part of this growth has occurred because of one sector – construction – which is usually very volatile.

Unemployment has declined to a historical low of 4.16%, but millions of Germans work in much-debated (and little paid) ‘mini-jobs’. Inequality has risen and the same applies to poverty rates (approximately 16% in 2015). Then, Germany’s top banks have often raised concerns. A colossus like Deutsche Bank recorded losses for almost 1.4 billion Euros in 2016 and since 2017 is interestingly partnered by a Chinese conglomerate, HNA, which has bought 10% of its shares. Another giant, Commerzbank, has suffered financial setbacks since the early 2000s, also because of its partial transformation into an investment bank.

With regard to green technologies, carmakers such as Toyota, Nissan, and Tesla are ahead of their German counterparts, despite the role environmental values have traditionally played in German society and politics. Even more important than corporate issues, however, the cornerstone itself of the German ‘social contract’ since World War Two, that is, security, is now in danger. Mini-jobs have reduced unemployment and yet increased insecurity. Immigration has increased the perception of insecurity. The same is true for international economic competition. If Europe is to be ‘good German housekeeping (and bookkeeping)’, we wonder whether fighting for European unity is still worthwhile.

Is Germany ready for a new ‘social contract’, more adequate to the global age? Or does it want to continue under the comfortable protection of a reassuring Mutti? This is the key point. Otherwise, far-right parties such as Alternative für Deutschland will keep gaining ground, far beyond what they have already obtained in the current polls. By entering the Bundestag with more than 90 seats, AfD has already ‘made history’; the first time a far-right party has obtained federal seats since 1945.

This is no small problem. In so many European countries, we have seen that disaffection with the same ‘old’ leaders leads to lower turnout and/or rise of populist parties. We have also seen that ‘populist’ parties have become much better structured and organised than a few years ago, and that by now they are often independent of their more-or-less charismatic founders and leaders. Moreover, established parties such as the FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei), have partly endorsed a nationalist and anti-European agenda, and often called for a ‘two-speed’ Europe – simplistic slogans which can easily translate into seats and political influence. 

This time die Mutti will also have more international opponents – not only Putin in the ‘East’, but also the anti-European Donald Trump in the West. The inability of the CDU-CSU to find ‘newer faces’ (better: new leaders) has been matched by that of the SPD, which selected for the chancellorship the unimpressive Martin Schulz. His term as a President of the European Parliament (2012-17) was rather unremarkable; moreover, like many other politicians, he used a European role as a launching platform for a national role – a choice which clearly diminishes the significance of European institutions and politics. Other SPD candidates – Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the current Federal President, or the brash Sigmar Gabriel, Foreign Secretary, might have had better chances to stand up to Angela Merkel; and yet the party’s choice was Schulz. Did the SPD stake its bets on another ‘Grand Coalition’? Why not try to win outright?

Parties aside, Germany has to redefine its relationship with Europe. Merkel has given very few signs of commitment to European integration. More than anything, she seems committed to the status quo; not to mention her policies of fiscal discipline, austerity, and a welcoming façade to migrants, which might be good to please voters and accommodate big business’ interests, but have nothing to do with European political integration. Merkel has shown resilience and patience, but now it is time for vision.

Has Merkel ever proposed new ideas to bring integration forward? The EU has never successfully managed internal migrations (including the about 800,000 people of Italian ancestry in Germany) – how can we expect it to seriously welcome millions of migrants from war-torn regions? How can Europe seriously tackle terrorism when there is no truly European intelligence – only a loose co-ordination among national agencies? If Europe is to be ‘good German housekeeping (and bookkeeping)’, we wonder whether fighting for European unity is still worthwhile.

If Germany is reduced to status quo maintaining, we wonder where the bold initiatives of Adenauer, Brandt, Kohl, and even Fischer have ended up. Europe works when it is a herald of new ideas, visions, projects. Otherwise, disaffection gains ground.

Both Germany and Europe need politics and leadership, not just sound budgets. Will good housekeeping be enough to resolve global crises of migration, environment, terrorism, or even ‘smaller’ problems such the ongoing diatribe between Madrid and Barcelona, which is a European problem as well? Will good housekeeping be enough to deal with the rising ambitions of China, Russia, Turkey, or with the arrogance of the current USA? Angela Merkel has shown resilience and patience, but now it is time for vision. Provided, of course, it is not too late.

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