Why Europe will not miss the overrated Merkel era
Catholic theologians have concocted an interesting theory about the variance of sin: Moral failure comes in differing varieties. There are sins of commission, things you actively do that cause moral harm. On the other hand, and equally venal, there are sins of omission, things you do not do that cause damage. It is on this latter count that the long reign of Chancellor Angela Merkel must be found wanting. Over the past decade-plus of her somnambulant reign, Germany has functioned as a policy black hole, where all good ideas go to die.
I have always been puzzled by the Western commentariat’s lionization of Merkel, as it is almost impossible to render a list of positive things she has done in policy terms; instead confusing longevity with historical success. Conversely, it has always seemed to me that the German chancellor is a sad representative of a very modern failing, with people forgetting that being lauded really ought to be linked to actual accomplishment. Worse still, doing nothing carries a real political risk cost.
The height of Merkel’s sins of omission coming home to roost concerns her betrayal of French President Emmanuel Macron’s heroic efforts at European-wide political reform. For Macron’s ambitious term in office — and I readily credit that he is the only major European leader who really understands the continent’s present existential crisis and is at least trying to rectify it — has been thwarted by the do-nothingism of the German government.
Correctly seeing that the European project has become hopelessly bogged down — with the continent experiencing puny long-term growth rates, increasing military irrelevance and hopeless internal political division over the euro zone crisis and migration issues — Macron has set about rebuilding the essential Franco-German motor for European reform.
Aware that, traditionally, Berlin has hidden behind characteristic French profligacy as an excuse to put off real discussions of European reform, Macron set about changing German perceptions.
Amazingly, he managed the first significant labor market reforms in the history of the French Fifth Republic, successfully defying French protesters. Now, in triumph, Macron turned to Merkel, hoping for the reward that Germany would now believe that Paris could be economically trusted and would, in turn, consent to real discussions about reviving the moribund European project.
In practice, this means future debt mutualization going forward (though debts accrued up until now would doubtless remain national), a genuine Europe-wide finance ministry, and hopes that an inner core (centered on Paris and Berlin) would actually move forward with ever-increasing integration.
By doing nothing, Merkel has torpedoed Macron’s last, best chance for real European reform.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
But then Merkel showed her true do-nothing colors. Looking at her shoes, she did nothing. Macron’s gamble, which had obviously cost him a huge amount of political capital, came to nothing. It turns out that the German elite did not really object to France’s old free-spending ways. Rather, they had merely used them as an excuse to do nothing, which was Merkel’s preferred policy all along. By doing nothing, Merkel has torpedoed Macron’s last, best chance for real European reform.
But now, at last, the overrated era of Merkel is limping to a close. The present, unloved, grand coalition of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the German Social Democrats (SPD) is marooned policy-wise, serving time rather than accomplishing anything at all. But the SPD, hemorrhaging support as junior partners in coalitions often do, may have finally had enough.
Recently battered in regional and European elections — as the formerly populist Greens take their place as the major center-left party in Germany, and as the populist leftist Linke party and the populist far-right Alternative for Germany also make gains — the SPD has at last been jolted into action. Picking its fifth leadership team in the last eight years, it startlingly chose two utterly unknown co-leaders, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, neither of whom have ever held leadership positions in the increasingly discredited party.
The duo campaigned primarily on the proposition that the grand coalition should be brought to an end unless Merkel’s CDU committed to a raft of new spending measures her party is highly unlikely to countenance. Failing this policy U-turn, the CDU would either have to soldier on as a minority government or new elections would have to be called.
While the new SPD leadership, terrified by the real electoral drubbing awaiting them, have walked back their threat over the past week, the grand coalition remains in a policy coma.
In any event, twilight has finally fallen on the hapless Merkel era. Its end should be welcomed by anyone who wants to see Europe succeed. However, if her hand-picked successor — a Merkel clone named Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — becomes chancellor, do not expect anything much to happen.
Only with the CDU succession going to the hard-driving Friedrich Merz will Macron have the partner he needs to give Europe a chance to right its absolute decline. Germany has been brain dead for a long time; if Europe is to recover, it must finally wake up.
• Dr. John C. Hulsman is senior columnist at City AM, a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises. He can be reached for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com.