Review: Merkel’s hidden European agenda

September 20, 2013

By Olaf Storbeck

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Angela Merkel is usually described as an utterly pragmatic politician, lacking either strong convictions or a grand political vision. Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung, takes issue with this view. In his biography of the German chancellor, published in English on the eve of the Sept. 22 German elections, he claims that Merkel has a bold blueprint of Europe’s future. She just stays mum about it in public.

According to Kornelius, Merkel was quite sincere when she said she wanted “more Europe” at the height of the euro crisis. She is in favour of more centralisation of economic policies – taxes, budgets and social-security systems. However, she does not want a United States of Europe based on an ever more powerful Brussels bureaucracy. Rather, Merkel prefers a new layer of inter-governmental cooperation between individual countries which retain their sovereignty but coordinate their policies more closely.

“Member states should make their own arrangements,” Kornelius summarises Merkel’s thoughts. “The chancellor wants a parallel organisation, one that will coordinate individual nations’ requests, with a supervisor who might work in the President of the Council’s office and supervise the implementation of treaties concluded between individual states.”

Up to a point, Merkel’s idea of a more inter-governmental Europe resembles David Cameron’s European vision. But there is an important difference. While the British prime minister wants Brussels to give back some existing powers to EU members, the Germans’ thoughts refer merely to future integration.

Is this theory of a grand European vision plausible? Kornelius acknowledges that Markel “would never openly admit that she has a master plan to rescue the European Union.” Her silence might suggest that the biographer is misreading the data.

But the reticence corresponds with his subject’s pragmatism – “Angela Merkel will only get involved in an argument if she knows that she will win in the end” – and with the lessons learned in her youth in East Germany. There, “learning when to keep quiet was a great advantage… It was one of our survival strategies,” as Merkel later recalled.

Kornelius stresses that red lines and overarching principles guide Merkel’s policies. The survival of the euro is one of them. “If the euro fails, Europe will fail,” he cites a cornerstone of Merkel’s reasoning. And he stresses that this statement should not be taken lightly. “Merkel always means what she says.” Besides European integration, the chancellor regards German special liaison with the United States and Israel as part of its “raison d’état” that must not be questioned.

It is nevertheless difficult to assess how hard Merkel will be pushing for her vision of Europe in the coming years. As Kornelius points out, the chancellor has earned a lot of political capital since she took office in 2005. “She is aware of that. At some point she might be tempted to give it up, to take a risk, stake everything on a single card.”

That, however, would be a very non-Merkelian move.

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