Merkel’s moral authority sets direction for Europe

Merkel’s moral authority sets direction for Europe

John Lloyd
Germans choose a government on Sept. 24, and that government is likely to be headed, for the 12th year running, by Angela Merkel. The uncharismatic 63-year-old from East Germany may not have captured her fellow Germans’ hearts, but she has appealed so strongly to their rational selves that polls suggest they find no reason to replace her.

Under her chancellorship, Germany has changed in a fundamental sense. Her former advisor, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut (now Berlin’s ambassador in Paris) told a small group two years ago that – according to Spiegel magazine – “today, with matters concerning the euro, Germany finds itself in a different position. It must now enforce a policy (of austerity) regarded by its partners as extreme. This unavoidably changes perceptions of the country.” “Enforce” and “extreme” are not words with which Germany has liked to be associated, and Merkel herself would never use them publicly. But Meyer- Landrut was telling the truth. Germany is Europe’s leader.

The United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union, Italy’s febrile politics and its present economic weakness keep it from assuming a larger EU responsibility and the mid-sized countries like Spain – still pulling itself out of recession – and Poland – politically hostile to much of what the EU stands for even as it enjoys the EU’s largest allocation of funds – can only follow, however reluctantly, the German locomotive. In France, where Emmanuel Macron is bidding to re-animate the German-French axis of EU power, the French president is on notice by Merkel, who won’t countenance his ambitious EU integration plans until he manages to implement controversial reforms at home.

Germany’s European partners now accept that Berlin is able to set and enforce the basic direction for the European Union – even if they don’t like the policies. Italian ministers, seeing some, albeit small, growth but weighed down still by heavy debt and fragile before any future world economic slowdown, complain long and loud about German-imposed austerity, with little effect.

The central figure in this has been Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister who has found a domestic popularity in insisting that EU states shape up by following the German example of reducing debt, improving productivity and reforming labor regulations. Schauble sees monetary and fiscal rectitude as a moral issue. When, in 2016, he delivered an economy with the first balanced budget in more than four decades, he used this to show his own moral authority before EU finance minister colleagues who had not been able to approach his record.

His argument, that the euro-using states should be more like Germany, is gaining ground. Germany does not, of course, carry the vast responsibilities of its leadership alone; it is careful to get majority northern support when battling with recalcitrant southern colleagues. It is the lodestar that, as Buruma wrote, trusts itself. In doing so, it has found the confidence to lead, and has shown that it has the capacity. But while the country may have earned those laurels in the 70 years since Nazism was buried in the rubble of Berlin, that doesn’t mean Merkel’s expected re-election will bring the integrated Europe she wants.

*This abridged article is taken from Reuters