The Economist’s long descent into Davos liberalism is well-chronicled, but, even so, “the indispensable European”, its new hymn to Angela Merkel, is remarkable both for the condescension it displays to those with whom it disagrees (however feeble the basis of that disagreement:”David Cameron is turning Britain into little England”? Well, no) and the praise it showers on Angela Merkel.
The magazine maintains that “in her ten years in office, Mrs Merkel has grown taller with every upheaval,” a view explicable only if The Economist has, like Alice, taken the one pill that makes it small. Merkel made a mockery of European democracy by forcing through the EU’s notorious Lisbon Treaty, and she trashed German’s energy system with the Energiewende (a bad set of policies made worse by her panicked reaction to the Fukushima disaster). In the course of the prolonged euro zone crisis, she helped push the EU deeper into post-democracy and a slice of the continent into a slump. Yes, as The Economist rightly notes, she did “corral” Europeans into imposing sanctions on Russia, but those may well be temporary. Her support for the Nordstream-2 gas pipeline says far more about her longer term attitude to a Russia that will not be reforming any time soon. The new pipeline will boost Russian gas supplies to Germany, but will deprive Ukraine of some $2bn in annual transit fees. Interestingly, it also bypasses Poland and the Baltic states. And, yes, it’s true that Merkel did play a critical role in brokering the (rather ambiguously positive) Minsk Agreement. On the other hand, her attitude to the deployment of German forces on NATO’s exposed eastern flank has been less than enthusiastic. Deterrence only works if it is demonstrably serious.
And now the migrant crisis, a crisis that Merkel will have made worse with the message that she sent out in September. Of course, it’s right, as The Economist notes, that “migrants were coming anyway”, but the long-standing perception, now reinforced, that Germany is a soft touch will have increased the numbers that turn up. That, perversely, is something that may well eventually create a climate in which clearly deserving cases get squeezed out. As to what her approach will mean for social cohesion within Germany and the broader EU, well, I’m not an optimist. To be sure, Germany and the other EU countries have their international obligations (foolishly now enshrined in the EU’s domestic law), but (to use somewhat overdramatic language) international obligations were never meant to be a ‘suicide pact’.
The Economist’s article includes a reference to this “Lutheran pastor’s daughter” finding a “moral calling”. That’s a saccharine talk about a tough politician and (if we’re going to talk about the past) it implicitly skates over her leftist father’s relationship with East Germany, as well as her own role in the FDJ, the communist youth organization, a role, rarely discussed, that appears to have gone somewhat beyond the routine (and understandable) ‘join it because you sort of have to’ of many of its members. And before you ask, no, she’s not a communist. Nothing like. She is, however, at the very least, a ’soft’ authoritarian.
And some of the language of the piece is fascinating for what it reveals about the mindset of its author(s). Merkel’s migration policies apparently uphold “European values”, a nonsense term that readers are meant to salute. We are also grandly told that Merkel hasn’t pandered to “populists” and that she reportedly regards the EU as a pillar of “peace and prosperity”, an over-simplification, to put it at its kindest.
But whatever one might think about Merkel’s handling of this crisis, it’s highly unlikely to bring her down. She has slipped in the polls, but by nothing like enough. If she wants a fourth term it is, as The Economist correctly argues in another article in the same issue, “all but assured”:
At present the parties to the left of the CDU—the Social Democrats, the Green party and The Left—have a narrow majority in parliament; they do not make up the government because The Left, descended from East Germany’s communist party, remains a pariah. An anti-refugee shift in 2017 would probably deprive the left of this notional majority and bring in the [populist] Alternative for Germany on the right, leaving Mrs Merkel in the middle and, barring an unprecedented CDU collapse, the leader of the largest party. She would thus be free to set about forming a centrist coalition (she has ruled out ever governing with the Alternative).
The Economist concludes “the indispensable European” thus:
This is Europe’s biggest crisis in a generation. If integration once seemed inexorable, the pressing question now is how to stop the EU from fraying. Mrs Merkel did not cause this grim reality, but she is the continent’s best hope for dealing with it. It is in Europe’s best interests to help the chancellor rather than leave her to confront the crisis alone. After a decade in power, politicians usually retire, lose touch or are overthrown. But, without Mrs Merkel, it is hard to see Europe mastering its destructive forces.
The pressing question now is how to stop the EU from fraying.
Not so much, I reckon. The far more pressing question is how to speed that fraying up.
And “destructive forces”? I’m not the only one to use overdramatic language, it seems. Nevertheless, if it really is true (I’m not convinced) that Merkel is what stands between the preservation of an increasingly post-democratic European order and its long overdue ‘fraying’, the only reason to welcome the prospect of her reelection is that the most likely alternatives (lower cap ‘a’) would be even worse. That’s not exactly cause for celebration.