Merkel’s Germany. Politics-as-pandemonium
Elections need not be exciting to be important. Germany is soon to go the polls. The rest of the world is stifling a yawn. Fans of politics-as-pandemonium are making a mistake. Europe is in better shape than for some time, but it can no longer assume its prosperity and security. Dull is just what is needed in the continent’s most powerful nation.
For a temporary refugee from Britain’s Brexit convulsions, this week’s televised debate between chancellor Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, her Social Democratic party challenger, was jarringly tame. The shock would have been greater for those in Washington accustomed to the histrionics fired daily from Donald Trump’s smartphone.
Where were the personal abuse, the invented facts and casual lies? Had neither candidate seen Mr Trump take on Hillary Clinton or France’s Emmanuel Macron face the xenophobic invective of Marine Le Pen?
Had they not heard British politicians lie about the vast riches that would flow from Brexit? Try as they might, Ms Merkel and Mr Schulz could not raise the temperature.What separates them politically is a gully rather than an ideological ravine. It adds nothing to the excitement quotient that polls predict Ms Merkel will be returned for a fourth term — quite possibly at the head of another coalition with Mr Schulz’s SPD.
Germany has not been immune to the populism destabilising political elites across Europe. The nativist Alternative for Germany is doing its best to whip up Islamophobia in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis. But it looks unlikely to garner much more than 10 per cent of the vote. The middle-ground consensualism offends many outsiders.
Voters, you hear critics say, are being denied a clear “choice”. But was not the postwar constitution, framed by the victors of 1945, designed to promote conciliation? In any event, there is another explanation for the absence of rage. Germany is prosperous and stable in a continent that recently has seemed anything but.
The crises of the euro and migration have been contained. Germans, you could say, have already made their choice — they are content with things much as they are. Those who like noise for its own sake should look at Britain. There the political alternatives are now represented by a ruling party obsessed with the destructive endeavour of wrenching Britain from its own continent and by a far left opposition leader wrapped in nostalgia for Soviet era socialism.
The choice between the Conservative prime minister Theresa May and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is not one to be wished on anyone else. What marks out Ms Merkel is not just her longevity (she has broken her promise not to make Helmut Kohl’s mistake of running for a fourth term), but her unabashed support for the open, liberal international order. When others went running to Washington to pay homage to Mr Trump after his election victory, Ms Merkel was studiously insistent she would deal with the new president on her own terms. Her Atlanticism is unquestionable, but not unconditional.
The threats speak for themselves. Vladimir Putin’s Russia wants to remake Europe’s territorial boundaries. Mr Trump is at once an unreliable and combustible ally. Britain has walked off the foreign policy field. French president Emmanuel Macron has yet to prove himself. Italy’s fractured politics are strained by rising migrant flows from North Africa.
Poland and Hungary bank hefty cheques from the EU while disowning its liberal values. For the moment a steady Germany is what Europe has left in terms of a nation willing to stand up for the norms and institutions of the postwar order. Mr Trump’s belligerent nationalism and Britain’s break with Europe have torn the fabric of the west.
The German chancellor is not giving up. Her commitments to freedom, the rule of law and democratic institutions are rooted in 35 years spent in the communist east. As the journalist Stefan Kornelius observes in an excellent biography, Ms Merkel knows that the liberal democracy that has assured Europe of peace and prosperity is not “a law of nature”.
- The chancellor is no saint. There is national self-interest at stake. Germany has been a big winner from the rules-based system and from economic globalisation. Business and exports have thrived as successive governments have sheltered under America’s security umbrella and eschewed international responsibilities beyond Europe.
- Ms Merkel seems to understand that the days of free-riding are over. She has made rebuilding the Franco-German relationship a priority and has added to the defence budget. And yet there is still a conscious timidity. She talks about such things to voters only in the vaguest terms.
- Circumstance — Mr Putin’s land grab of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, and the flood of refugees from the Syrian civil war — have forced the chancellor to act. But leadership on the global stage is not something sought or welcomed by the electorate. The further you travel from Berlin, the more reluctant voters are to admit that Germany can no longer hide behind its history.
Dull is good, especially when it substitutes for mendacity. But it is not enough. What has been missing in the campaign is a serious discussion of the international role Germany can no longer avoid. The writer at present is a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin