Can Europe Make It?

“Merkel is a pragmatic European” – an interview with the BBC's Jon Sopel

On 22 September, Germans will go to the polls and decide over the future course of their country and, perhaps, Europe as a whole. BBC presenter Jon Sopel sat down with The European to discuss the election, Angela Merkel’s governing style and rising German Euroskepticism.

Jon Sopel Max Tholl Saskia Ibrom
18 September 2013
Jon Sopel. All rights reserved.

Jon Sopel. All rights reserved.

The European: Mr. Sopel, you’ve covered many election campaigns all across Europe. What’s your appraisal of the current election campaign here in Germany?

Sopel: I love election campaigns! I get an excitement just driving in from the airport and seeing all the posters up, it’s magnificent. But there are a couple of things that strike me about this election campaign.

For example?

This election is coming at a period of great international crisis over Syria and we’ve just been through the eurozone crisis and the Germans are debating about the desirability of motorway tolls for foreigners in southern Germany or a day of vegetarianism in canteens – it’s basically small bread and butter issues. I am really struck by the domestic focus of the campaign and the neglect of the big international questions.

Local issues affect people’s everyday lives; international issues don’t.

Of course, all elections are primarily focused on domestic issues but this one may be even more so. Therefore, the arguments are quite narrow and the broader economic and political parameters defining Germany’s role in Europe and the future of the common currency don’t seem to be that controversial.

"Merkel wants Europe to work but not at any price”

Can a global player like Germany afford to ignore such pressing issues?

Germany is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council so it can abstain from taking sides. And there’s the historical legacy that kept Germany from playing an offensive role. I don’t think that anyone was particularly surprised that Merkel wasn’t rallying behind Obama to gather support for an intervention in Syria. But it is quite paradoxical.

How so?

On the one hand, Germany is an economic superpower but on the other hand, it is very hesitant when it comes to international diplomacy.

Do you think that this election is being followed more closely than previous ones because the decisions in Germany heavily affect Europe as a whole?

Yes I do. It generates a lot of attention throughout Europe. In the UK, for example, the debate about an in-out referendum on European Union membership is heavily shaped by the question: “who will be the next German chancellor?”.

What would the desired answer to that question be?

I think that both Tories and Labour would like Angela Merkel to stay in office. She’s a pragmatist, someone you can strike a deal with. She is not an emotional European in the way Edward Heath, François Mitterrand or Helmut Kohl were. Merkel is a pragmatic European. She wants Europe to work but not at any price. She is primarily concerned about the economical competitiveness of the continent. The big Social Europe project that focuses on welfare is the Left’s programme, not Merkel’s.

And yet, she is still seen by many as the leading figure in Europe.

If you look at the west and there’s a crisis like Syria, everybody wonders what the US is going to do. We look to the Americans to take the lead and then we criticize them if they take too much action or if they don’t take any action at all. In Europe, the same goes for Germany; all eyes are on Germany.

Do you think that that is a desirable state of affairs?

The fact of the matter is that it’s got leverage. Be it bailouts, structural funds or fiscal pacts – they all depend on Germany’s willingness to play along. You can’t get anything done in Europe without German consent. Merkel opposed a number of things like the Eurobonds, which, from a German point of view, was very smart. After all, who is going to pick up the checque for that? Germany will.

“Merkel’s a phenomenal leader”

If Angela Merkel won the election, her tenure of office would probably last at least 12 years in total. Should Europe be worried by a president-like chancellor?

I think it only matters if they become almost dictatorial or high-handed. As long as they are elected – and just have a look at Merkel’s approval ratings – that’s absolutely fine. My impression of Merkel, judging from what I have seen during summits, is that she’s a very hard-headed, clear-thinking leader who’s willing to make compromises but can be very tough from time to time. That’s not a bad thing.

Many former German chancellors have been described in similar terms. Do you think that this is a typical German mindset?

I believe that Kohl had a different mindset. Merkel is from a different generation and background. The Franco-German motor used to be everything but Merkel has shown that Germany’s not willing to accept policies that aren’t perceived to be in its interest. At the same time, she’s also more willing to work things out with Britain. She realizes that some of David Cameron’s arguments, about the size and the budget of the EU for example, are also shared in Germany, so she tries to forge an alliance.

Ms. Merkel’s image has severely suffered during the euro crisis, especially in southern Europe. How is she perceived in Britain?

The tabloid press can be horrible and vile but I would say that she gets a lot of good press in Britain. I think that’s largely due to the fact that we haven’t been in a battle over spending cuts or budgets with Germany. We think that Merkel’s someone that we can do business with.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck once said that Merkel is “feared abroad but loved at home”. Would you agree?

Feared might be a bit too strong but I am sure Ms. Merkel would love that description of herself. To a politician that must be the Midas Touch: “my enemies fear me, my people love me”. Astonishing. I personally think that Ms. Merkel’s a phenomenal leader.

“I don’t think Steinbrück would change Germany’s Europe course.”

She’s often compared to another feisty leader – Margaret Thatcher. Is that a valid comparison?

I don’t think so. They’re both great politicians – and this is not expressing a political point of view – because they managed to affect change despite massive opposition. But Thatcher was a divisive character while Merkel seems to unify the German population.

Do you believe that the result will affect Germany’s European course or will the country, regardless of the election result, cling to its austerity strategy? 

This is very difficult to predict. I don’t think Steinbrück would change Germany’s European course in any substantial way. But I am sure that the next chancellor, whether it be Merkel or Steinbrück, will be consulting opinion polls very closely if a bailout or any other major decision is to be reached. Newly elected leaders always do.

The AfD is a new euroskeptic party that is propagating the dissolution of the common currency. The party is close to the 5% margin and could become a game changer in the coalition-building process. What’s your appraisal of the party?

The success of such parties is quickly explained: they capitalize on the skepticism of the general public. I am not surprised that there is a party that opposes the euro and bailouts for other countries. It would be strange if no party would try to benefit from this public skepticism. Most mainstream parties are reluctant to touch on issues like immigration or the flaws of European integration because they are afraid to be labelled racist or radical. But if we don’t talk about such issues it benefits the Radical Right and that is not a desirable outcome.

So moderate euroskeptic parties are vital for a functioning democracy?

I do think so. It is part of the debate and so their voices must be heard as well – but of course only if they present their arguments in a rational manner and refrain from extremist populism.

This article was originally published by The European. Thanks go to the editors for allowing us to republish it here.

Are you currently living in Germany or a passionate observer of German politics? We'd very interested in publishing your thoughts  - do drop us a line at europe (at) opendemocracy.net!

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