Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’s overwhelming victory in the German general election suggest that the Chancellor has secured her third term, one which will make her, once again, Europe’s most powerful politician. Merkel’s victory marks an anomaly in an epoch when European countries are more than eager to oust their leaders for their failures during the Eurozone crisis.
The unassuming East German is hardly the image of a continental leader: her lack of charisma, general indecisiveness, and even her taste in attire do not project an aura of statesmanship. Yet the Germans’ votes are a public endorsement for “Mutti” Merkel’s continued leadership not just of Germany, but of the European Union as a whole.
For years, Germany had been side by side with France in terms of continental power, but with the French economy lagging behind, Germany is now looked up to as the de facto European leader. But is Mrs. Merkel’s pragmatic risk-aversion the kind of leadership style that the EU needs right now, or do they need something more assertive and inspiring? Moreover, where does the German populace stand in all this?
A Steady Hand
The ex-physicist remains one of the few leaders in the Eurozone who has steered her country successfully through the Euro crisis. In addition, her cautious and pragmatic conservatism has guided the troubled continent through one of its biggest upheavals in recent history. Her European leadership however, has been more reluctant than proactive, born largely out of a desire to safeguard German interests, and the lack of alternative candidates for European leadership. She has said on many occasions that if the Euro fails, then Europe fails. But the fear that if the Euro fails, Germany fails, probably weighs even more heavily on her mind.
Yet, this election will only serve to strengthen her preeminent position among Europe’s heads of state. Thus, it is important to ask how European powers will react to Germany’s paramount role.
Many credit Merkel with saving the Eurozone, while others, mostly Southern states are less generous. Merkel has been ‘assisting’ these nations regain competitiveness by demanding harsh austerity measures and structural reforms. They blame Germany for forgoing EU values by looking out for their own interests in the crisis. Many of these southern countries are taken with the idea of Eurobonds, one that Merkel fervently opposes, because the collective responsibility for paying debts would work to the interests of some nations and the detriment of others, like Germany, in Merkel’s view. Merkel has hence become the scapegoat for budget cuts and painful economic reforms.
The euro-skeptic British may be happy with Merkel’s continued success, as her primary regard for German interests will motivate her not to move further down the path of European federalism. As for the French, Francois Hollande was one of the first European leaders to congratulate Merkel on her superb result. Facing an all-time low approval rate at home, the Frenchman is likely to resume close cooperation with Germany.
Domestic stakeholders are equally split. There is a growing euro-skeptic sentiment that came to the fore in the large gains for the Alternatives for Germany (AfD). The AfD gained a similar share of votes as Merkel’s preferred partners, the Free Democrats (FDP). Since Merkel’s preferred collation partners have failed to gain parliamentary representation, she will have to seek to form a coalition with either the SPD or the Greens.
Even if Merkel does join forces with the centre-left social democrats, this may not lead to great changes in policy for two reasons. Firstly, whilst the SPD may be more lenient on austerity measures, policies will still be dominated by Merkel’s CDU. Secondly, despite challenges put forth by the AfD, the majority of Germans are still in favor the status quo. For Germans, the preservation of their strong economy is a result of Mutti fending off other European nations asking for money. Therefore, domestic yearning for the maintenance of the status quo will run in opposition to the role Germany will have to take if it chooses to lead the EU.
Merkel has been instrumental in sheltering Germany from other international turmoil. Germany did not join fellow NATO forces in Libya, and they were steadfast in their non-interventionist stance towards Syria. Germany only participated minimally in Iraq and Afghanistan. These types of inward-looking policies may not exactly be compatible with a EU leadership role.
Perhaps Germans are still inflicted with a post-World War II need to refrain from demonstrating any form of assertiveness in foreign policy matters. Merkel indeed has often been criticized of having no vision and no plans. The memories of Nazi Germany are still present in the German population’s and the international community’s minds. Neither may be ready for another German hegemon.
Further developments will depend upon the nature of Merkel’s coalition, but one thing is for sure, this status quo will not last forever. The European powerhouse cannot expect to reap the benefits of the Euro without taking any responsibility.