Germany’s renewed hegemony isn’t something Europe needs to fear
She can’t help it. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, is the most important leader in Europe. She tries to duck it by exhibiting a modest demeanor, presenting no charisma, no grand pronouncements, no apparent ambition to stamp her views on history. She just carries on.
Yet European leaders vie for her Mona Lisa smile (or is it a smile?). Are we comfortable with Merkel’s influence and power?
No other politician in Europe brings the gravitas she does to a meeting. No other European leader can be so definite about what Europe’s support – which has been expressed, if in varying degrees of intensity, by all member states of the European Union – amounts to as a whole. And her unrivalled, understated leadership in Europe will be again on display.
Merkel travels to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, this weekend to meet with Petro Poroshenko, the country’s president, to show support and to offer counsel before his meeting early next week with Vladimir Putin in Minsk, Belarus. She met Poroshenko in Berlin before traveling to D-Day memorial celebrations in France in June, and once there, talked with Putin about the crisis in Ukraine. She’s the go-to woman.
Just ask Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old prime minister of Italy. He grabbed his premiership in an inner-party coup, then solidified his position with 41 percent of the vote in the May European elections, making his left-of-center Democratic Party the largest in the European parliament. Renzi’s political fortunes have been riding high ever since, high enough, it seems, to have emboldened him to approach Merkel with a request to relax her stern observance of the fiscal austerity rules all states using the euro have agreed to. She isn’t budging yet. Italy needs labor reform, higher productivity, and faster and cleaner justice so that foreign investment will flow into the country, Merkel insists. Short of these changes, the German chancellor and her still sterner finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, believe that any larger assistance or transfers to the country would create more moral hazard.
In response, Renzi has drawn the bruised and battered president of France, Francois Hollande, into his camp in the apparent hope that the combination of second and third biggest economies in the eurozone will pressure Germany to ease up on its austerity medicine. The president of France and the chancellor of Germany have jointly been the chief guardians of the EU flame for near half a century, with France seen as the dominant partner even when Germany’s economy had surpassed France’s. Now the imbalance is hugely in Germany’s favor: “It doesn’t seem possible for Hollande to get less popular,” Der Spiegel helpfully commented last month. At times, it seems, Merkel is more supportive of Hollande in his binational partnership role than as president of France.
Merkel has, in the past year, reached out to her fellow center-right prime minister in the United Kingdom, David Cameron, who has called for large reforms in the EU, mainly in the direction of repatriating powers to national governments and parliaments and tightening immigration rules. Merkel hosted Cameron and his wife Samantha at her residence, the rarest of compliments, and has promised to back at least some ideas on Cameron’s reform list.
All this from the daughter of a Lutheran pastor growing up in Communist East Germany. All this from a woman who rose in a political culture as aggressively male-dominated as any in Europe. All this from one who, till her mid-30s, seemed set on a career as researcher in physical chemistry, a study to which she gave 12 years of her young womanhood.
Not all countries. Resentment over austerity has taken the form of swastikas daubed on walls, stiff arm salutes when Merkel visits and crude insults, especially from groups in the southern European countries that feel most pinched by austerity. These include newspapers and politicians close to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who believes – probably rightly – that Merkel pressured Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to get rid of him.
But we should be over it, which does not mean forgetting. Germany’s democratic polity and culture run deep, enthusiastically and seriously embraced by Germans, especially by the young. The old ghosts of Nazism have been exorcised. The problem that Germany now presents is that its popular, publicly modest chancellor is the de facto leader of a grouping that famously had no number to call when the U.S. president needed to talk to his closest allies.
Now it does: it’s Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, which, maybe because of its importance, the National Security Agency had, embarrassingly, bugged. Still, though with obvious annoyance, she decided to shrug it off and carry on. She’s the woman for carrying on. And she carries much on her back – luckily for the rest of us.
PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference in Berlin July 18, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Peter