‘The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” said De Gaulle, or his predecessor Georges Clemenceau, or New York publisher Elbert Hubbard, or one of several other less famous people with a good turn of phrase, according to the scrupulously careful online Quote Investigator. Be that as it may, it’s looking increasingly likely that the (political) graveyard will soon be welcoming an “indispensable” woman, recently sanctified as such on the cover of The Economist, namely German chancellor Angela Merkel. Her Christian Democrat party fell to third place in Berlin’s local elections last week and may not stay long in the city’s governing coalition. Two thirds of German voters now want her gone. And the names of successors are being freely canvassed.
This decline and the associated rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party are being blamed on Merkel’s unqualified invitation to Syrian refugees to come to Germany last year. More than 1 million migrants have done so in the intervening twelve months — many of them neither Syrian nor refugees — and they have led to a large rise in violent and “hate” crimes, some committed by them, some by those protesting their arrival. These things are frightening not only the voters, but also nervous members of Merkel’s own parliamentary party devoted to their own careers before hers. For them, the writing is on the Berlin Wall.
Even those drafting her advance obituaries, however, seem to regard her tenure as chancellor as having been an overall success marked by prudence and achievement. She is generally still seen as “a safe pair of hands” — and indeed the best election poster for the CDU last time was a simple picture of a pair of hands. You can make that case — I’ll do so in a moment as a kind of exercise — but only on grounds that would alarm her admirers and threaten her reputation. By any respectable criterion, she is a klutz on a heroic scale.
Consider the following examples:
- Merkel’s energy policy was based upon a combination of nuclear power and “renewables” in order to close down power stations dependent on fossil fuels, and help Germany lead the European Union and the world toward a carbon-free future. She had been a strong defender of nuclear energy against SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s attempts to phase it out. Within a few weeks of the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima, though, she panicked, reversed herself, and closed down Germany’s entire nuclear program. Her Energiewende since then has led to a massive increase in power bills for consumers and industry, the movement abroad of German companies heavily reliant on energy, and, more recently, a phasing out of the phasing out of coal-fired power stations. Merkel and the nuclear companies are still haggling over how much the German government will pay for the estimated €23 billion cost of shutting down their plants. Meanwhile, no one believes that Germany and Europe will meet their official goal of reducing carbon emissions 80-95 percent from their 1990 levels by the year 2050.
- The refugee crisis is all too plainly a vast mistake, as Merkel herself has admitted. But some of its side-effects have produced other crises almost as severe. Example one: though Merkel welcomed “Syrian refugees” without consulting even her colleagues in the German government, she immediately demanded that other European states within the then-borderless Schengen Zone should accept them as well. That demand was resisted (and still is) by other governments, and there’s been a long-running “existential” (Jean-Claude Juncker’s word, not mine) crisis in the EU ever since. Example two: Merkel reduced the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into the EU through a deal with Turkish strongman Recep Tayyik Erdogan to control the border. But the price was high: the EU’s silence over Erdogan’s arbitrary arrest of thousands of soldiers, police, lawyers, and journalists, and visa-free entry into the EU for 80 million Turks, which could mean another migrant crisis down the road. There’s no guarantee that Erdogan — who’s skilled at selling the same horse twice — won’t ask for additional concessions from a desperate Merkel and EU, either.
- Whether Brexit is a good idea for Britain — as I think it is — Merkel and her EU colleagues all devoutly believe that it’s bad for Europe. But she helped to create the circumstances that made it happen by rejecting all of PM David Cameron’s demands except for the most trivial — and even then the concessions the EU offered were legally reversible. It was a serious setback for her and for her lodestar of European unity. And it came about because at a time when populist parties were rising throughout Europe, including the AFD in Germany, she complacently assumed that the risk of Brexit was not a serious one. She had confidence that Cameron would win but gave him no real help in doing so. He resigned; she was further weakened.
- When Merkel won her first election in 2004, she represented a more general shift to the liberal economic right in German politics. Chancellor Schröder — the SPD leader she narrowly defeated — had ushered in some market-friendly economic reforms that many now credit for making the German economy more dynamic. Indeed, Merkel herself praised him for doing so. Since then, however, she has presided over a shift back to the Left. By blocking the demands of the CDU’s traditional coalition partner, the Free Democrats, for tax cuts and a more market-friendly approach, she made them look weak and ineffective. As a result, they fell below the 5 percent threshold for entry into the Bundestag for the first time since 1945. Though the 2013 election was generally reported as a victory for Merkel and the CDU, in fact it ushered in a small parliamentary majority for the Left. That had consequences. To retain the coalition and her chancellorship, Merkel had to agree to a series of small socialist reforms required by the SPD — notably, a quite generous minimum wage and a reduction in the pension age. Judged by results, Merkel looks more and more East German with every passing election. (Incidentally, the Free Democrats now favor some restrictions on immigration.)
- Merkel’s Euro policy has proved — astounding though it sounds — even more destructive than her immigration policy. By insisting that Germany had to prove its loyalty to Europe by ruling out any reform of the Euro’s structure, she imprisoned Southern European countries in an over-valued exchange rate that inflicted recession, unemployment, and a debt crisis on them indefinitely. It’s hard to express the damage this has done to millions of human lives, but here’s one measure: Though the average unemployment rate for the Eurozone hovered between 10 and 12 percent from 2010 to 2016 and the Eurozone youth-unemployment rate hovered between 20 and 22 percent over the same period, the youth-unemployment rate in Mediterranean Europe has generally been around the 50 percent mark. (There have been corresponding problems for northern Europe in the subsidies their taxpayers have had to pay to keep Greece, Spain, and Portugal solvent and inside the straitjacket.) Political instability has accordingly flourished in the South, with successive governments losing elections and extreme Marxist parties coming to or near power. Relations between different European countries — above all, Greece and Germany — have been permanently poisoned. Democracy itself has been sidelined by Brussels as it replaced elected prime ministers with its own favored technocrats. In short, nothing has damaged European unity more than Merkel’s blindly unreasoning insistence on an un-reformed Euro.
As a result of these and other blunders by the “indispensable” Merkel, Europe is facing a series of disabling crises.
So what was the argument above that shows Merkel to be a success, even if only in ways her admirers cannot openly endorse? Well, the Euro is a disaster for some countries (where it’s an over-valued currency) but a boon to others (where it’s under-valued). Germany is an export-oriented economy. It benefits from having an under-valued currency, which keeps its export prices low and its market share large. For Germany, the Euro is under-valued, its exchange rate held down by the presence of economies such as Greece and Spain. So Germany’s export industries can sell at artificially low prices not only to other Eurozone member-states but also to the rest of the world. It’s true that in the cases of Greece and Spain, Berlin and the EU have to keep sending fresh money down to Athens and Madrid in order to help their peoples to keep buying German goods. But no worries: That’s paid for by the taxpayers of all Eurozone governments. No government is needed to finance consumers in China, Africa, and North America to purchase German exports. In those cases the rising sale of German exports is financed by the falling market shares of non-Eurozone rival companies — and of course by the rising unemployment rates of Mediterranean Europe.
By any respectable criterion, she is a klutz on a heroic scale.
You can see why German industries and the CDU might not want to draw attention to that.
As the shades gather, are there any strong arguments for Merkel to remain? Well, a feminist writer in the Daily Telegraph suggests that she has shown that women can exercise power. Hmmmmm. Hadn’t that point already been proven by Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher — not to mention Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici, and Cleopatra? And won’t the point lose its intended force if the results of Merkel’s exercising power continue to be relentlessly negative? Have I mentioned Putin and Ukraine yet?
As always when a leader stumbles, the cry is heard: But there’s no one to replace her! See de Gaulle, Clemenceau, and Elbert Hubbard above for a sufficient answer to that argument. Besides, there are, in fact, several names being mentioned as potential replacements, mostly the photogenic young thrusters who always strike journalists as just what the nation needs: on this occasion, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, and Jens Spahn, cited by an Irish correspondent as “the ambitious 36-year-old deputy finance minister.”
All of them are doubtless terrific, but what about someone who’s shown some ability to grasp what’s gone wrong and how it might be put right? At last year’s “European Summit” on the Greek crisis, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, proposed a rescue package for Greece that would grant generous loans not to keep Greece inside the poisoned Shirt of Nessus but to help the country to leave the Euro and survive the inevitable difficulties of the transition to a new independent currency that would allow it to compete again. It was seriously discussed but ultimately vetoed by Merkel and Hollande as the end of Europe or some such free-flowing nonsense. Schäuble also commented with deadly obliqueness on Merkel’s invitation to migrants: “Avalanches can easily be triggered if a careless skier disturbs even just a small bit of snow.” That tells us something.
And his other qualities?
Well, he’s the finance minister credited with Germany’s economic soundness, an experienced MP of some 44 years’ standing, and a political realist supportive of the EU but not in the grip of utopianism. Best of all, at the age of 74, he would take office older than Ronald Reagan, Konrad Adenauer, and either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Mrs. Merkel could then explain she was making way for an older man. I think that would be a graceful gesture, and Helmut Kohl for one would certainly enjoy it.