Opinion

Mark Leonard

The revenge of the German elite

Mark Leonard
Feb 4, 2014 15:38 UTC

This week, Germany’s foreign policy establishment struck back against a public they say has become increasingly insular, self-satisfied and pacifist. In surprisingly blunt language, German President Joachim Gauck took to the stage last Friday at the Munich Security Conference to declare: “While there are genuine pacifists in Germany, there are also people who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world.”

Gauck asked if Germany’s historical sins mean that it has more, rather than less, responsibility to defend the fragile foundations of an economy and a peaceful world order from which it has disproportionately benefited. In the speech, Gauck was attacking without naming the former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose talk of a “culture of restraint” and strong opposition to euro zone bailouts were attempts to channel Germany’s public mood of disengagement.

Westerwelle’s doctrine reached its apotheosis in March 2011, when he stood in the U.N. Security Council with Brazil, Russia, India and China to oppose an intervention in Libya that was being pursued by the United States and its European allies.

History is “dialectical,” as Germans like to say. It rarely advances in straight lines. It usually takes jagged swings between opposites. One senior diplomat explained to me that if Westerwelle had not embraced the “culture of restraint” so proudly, it would be impossible for the current players to throw it overboard so comprehensively.

The president’s remarks had an impact because they seemed to be part of a broader campaign by the German foreign policy establishment. The new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has talked about “reactivating the German foreign ministry” and has offered to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in Germany.

Merkel’s anti-mandate

Mark Leonard
Sep 24, 2013 16:05 UTC

Rarely in politics has a landslide election produced so little clarity about the country’s future. Rather than provide a mandate for the direction of Germany or Europe, this week’s election has muddied the political waters.

“Merkel in 42 percent heaven” the Berliner Zeitung said on Sunday (the headline has since changed on the website). But for much of Germany and certainly the rest of the European Union, the results will be more like political and economic purgatory than heaven.

On being elected to her third term as chancellor, Angela Merkel received more support than any conservative leader since Konrad Adenauer in 1957. However, neither the Social Democrat Party (SPD) nor the Green Party is keen to share power with a politician who was nicknamed the “Black Widow” for the way that she chews up and decimates her coalition partners. In the last grand coalition, in which Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and the SPD shared power from 2005 to 2009, the SPD lost a third of its traditional voters. The party shrank from 35 percent to 23 percent during this time and it has not yet recovered. The Green Party, which has a lot of left-leaning voters, would probably suffer an even worse fate.

Revolt of the technocrats

Mark Leonard
Apr 17, 2013 20:37 UTC

BERLIN ‑ Of the most dangerous sentences a politician can utter, one must be, “There is no alternative.” Or, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel says, the situation is alternativlos.

A group of German political activists who gathered this weekend to launch an anti-euro party is betting that Merkel’s refusal to countenance change will provide fertile ground for opposition. Although most people in Berlin think Merkel will be re-elected in the general election in September, a growing number of political forces are lining up to define an alternative to her policies in Europe.

Merkel has managed to contain the threat to austerity represented by international leaders such as François Hollande, Mario Monti and Mariano Rajoy. At home, in spite of growing hostility to the euro among the public, none of the mainstream parties dissent from Merkel’s dedication to the euro. Merkel’s more dangerous opponents come from outside the established political terrain.

from The Great Debate:

The dark flip side of European technocracy

Mark Leonard
May 31, 2012 16:23 UTC

How many countries will Germany need to bail out before it has erased the guilt of the Holocaust? That is the provocative question posed by Thilo Sarrazin, a publicity-hungry maverick whose 2010 book attacking immigration shattered Germany’s political consensus and sold more than 1 million copies. Last week he returned to the scene of the crime with a new book called Why Europe Doesn't Need the Euro. In a much-quoted passage, he says supporters of eurobonds are driven “by that very German reflex according to which atonement for the holocaust and the world wars will never be complete until we have delivered our entire public interest, and even our money, into European hands.” This title has raced to the top of best-seller lists and sent jittery markets into panic. Sarrazin is a narcissist who is more interested in self-promotion than serious analysis. But his views on Europe – as well as the political class’s reaction to them – tell us a lot about how the euro’s political travails have come about, as well as how they are likely to unfold.

An opinion poll last week provides just the latest proof that Sarrazin has his finger on the national pulse: Over half of Germans think their country has suffered by joining the euro, while 79 percent reject eurobonds as a solution to the crisis. Sarrazin – a former regional politician and Bundesbank governor who was stripped of his official positions because of his views on immigration – is not a man to do things by halves. His book breaks not one but two German taboos by linking Holocaust guilt with questions about the sustainability of the euro. (It is designed to be a refutation of Angela Merkel's argument that the breakup of the euro would lead to the breakup of the EU.) But although – or rather because – Sarrazin is so good at mirroring public opinion, the German political establishment is falling over itself to bury his arguments: Peer Steinbrueck, the former finance minister (and possible candidate for chancellor), described it as “bullshit”; while the current finance minister, Wolfgang Schaueble, described it as "appalling nonsense."

The antics of Thilo Sarrazin are a product of the constrained, elitist nature of German politics where – after the experience of National Socialism – many topics are declared outside the realm of political competition. As a result, all mainstream parties are in favor of Europe, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism. The result is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – including the decision to replace the über-popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro. But those who dare cross the threshold of political correctness – as Sarrazin has repeatedly done – tap into a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow.

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