Advancing Panzer tanks and Wehrmacht divisions once symbolised German ambitions to dominate Europe. Eighty years on, the position is wholly reversed. Blitzkrieg has been replaced by snooze-krieg as the leading candidates to succeed Angela Merkel in this month’s safety-first federal election seek to perpetuate modern-day Germany’s ingrained reluctance to lead Europe on the global stage.
As the world burns, Germany slumbers. Whether the challenge is an accelerating climate crisis, crumbling EU unity, China’s abusive authoritarianism, a collapsing US security umbrella or bottomless Russian malevolence, Europe’s most powerful country too often fails to take a stand. Emmanuel Macron’s France strikes out randomly. Boris Johnson’s Britain claims, delusionally, to “punch above its weight”. Berlin, in contrast, fights shy.
Popular Merkel’s 16-year reign is generally held to have been good for Germany at home. Voters are sad to see her go, and this regret is shared abroad. Germany’s first female leader is viewed as a competent, reassuring, trustworthy figure who eschewed the histrionics and gaffes of male politicians. Her courageous response to the Syrian refugee crisis and personal handling of the terrible twins – chauvinist ogres Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – is widely admired.
Yet longevity should not be confused with achievement. Nor is good management a substitute for strategic thinking. Helmut Schmidt, the late West German chancellor, memorably quipped: “Wer Visionen hat, soll zum Arzt gehen” (“Anyone who has visions should go to the doctor”). Germans, it is said, have a historically justified fear of charismatic leaders. No one ever accused Merkel of being a visionary or oozing charisma. Instead, her reluctance to dwell on the big picture has produced the very opposite problem.
Merkel’s response to the 2009 European sovereign debt crisis is a case in point. Admirers say she saved the eurozone by backing bailouts for its hardest-hit members. Critics say the short-sighted rescue primarily benefited German banks. Harsh austerity measures were imposed on Greece and poorer countries, widening the EU’s north-south divide. Their legacy continues to boost Eurosceptic, far-right nationalist-populist movements.
Merkel stands accused of prioritising German economic and business interests over EU solidarity and democratic and human rights values – an approach only half-jokingly referred to as “Merkantilism”. Just consider her now lapsed European parliamentary alliance with Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s EU law-breaking, gay-bashing, authoritarian leader. It’s claimed, for example, that he backed Merkel’s choice as European Commission president, the sadly inept Ursula von der Leyen, in return for political protection.
“Merkel’s alliance with Orbán wasn’t just about party politics; it was characteristically Merkantilistic,” analysts Matthias Matthijs and R Daniel Kelemen claim. “Hungary is a major, low-wage, near-shore manufacturing centre for German multinationals... Merkel recognised how good relations with the Orbán regime served German commercial interests and used her enormous influence to shield him from EU criticism.”
Merkel is similarly attacked for putting profit before principle in China, whose global bullying and human rights abuses have not deterred huge German export growth. Russia is another sore point. Ukraine and east European states strongly oppose her support for the Nord Stream 2 Baltic gas pipeline. The US fears Putin’s pet project will increase Europe’s energy dependency, but its warnings are ignored.
Merkel’s friendly dealings with dictatorships and autocrats, justified as promoting peaceful engagement and influence, have arguably produced few political benefits while undermining European principles. Her efforts to reverse Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea got nowhere. Her careful protests over crackdowns in Hong Kong and Belarus, and the poisoning of Putin’s best-known critic, Alexei Navalny, had little practical effect.
Under Merkel’s risk-averse leadership, Germany has hindered development of a credible, independent European defence and security capability, much to Macron’s frustration and, perhaps, to Russian, Chinese and US delight. And as the Greens’ leader, Annalena Baerbock, notes, her record on another big issue – the climate crisis – also falls well short of inspirational.
By hastily renouncing nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima accident, Merkel left Germany more reliant on coal and imported gas. A push towards renewables has since slowed. July’s disastrous flooding in western regions raised the stakes. She now admits Germany must do much more to reduce carbon emissions. But it will not be done by her.
Merkel’s failure to lead by example on some of the main challenges facing Europe, drawing on the authority conferred by her long tenure and experience, is the biggest disappointment of her time as chancellor. Even her “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do this!”) moment during the 2015 refugee crisis cannot disguise the subsequent failure to follow through with an EU-wide asylum pact. To be fair, Merkel, unlike others, tried her best.
Perhaps she is guilty of excessive pragmatism. Perhaps she worries too much about old ghosts. Or perhaps this reluctance to offer a strong lead in Europe reflects an active preference, shared by Germans generally, for a quiet life in a world noisily going to hell all around them. Some may call that sensible, others foolish and selfish – given that Germany’s prosperity pivots on stability.
Whatever the truth, Merkel’s most likely successors, Armin Laschet or Olaf Scholz, show no sign of changing the steady-as-she-goes, beware-foreign-entanglements mantras of the Merkel school of statecraft. Both men are cast as the “continuity candidate”. On big global issues, both are doing their desperatebest to sound and look like Merkel – though “Mutti” wears the trousers far better than they.
Who will speak for Europe in a world run ragged by conflict, populism, pandemic and poverty? Certainly not an ineffectual Brussels bureaucracy. Britain has thrown itself under a geopolitical bus. France lacks the strength. And strategically underperforming Germany is asleep at the wheel. The answer should be obvious.
Unless and until Berlin awakes and, like Rapunzel, lets down her hair, the encircling enemies of democracy will continue to thrive.