By Mathew D. Rose, a freelance journalist in Berlin
There seems to be a concerted effort in German politics and media to unseat the nation’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. It is difficult to say exactly when things started to go wrong for Ms Merkel, yet in retrospect she has been careening from one crisis to the other for a couple of years. The incipient moment was probably the euro crisis, but Merkel’s watershed was doubtlessly Germany’s calamitous political intervention in Ukraine. Since then things have gone steadily downhill. With her newest crisis, refugees and immigrants, Ms Merkel is being portrayed as out of touch with her party, her people and reality, but even worse, as rather ridiculous. The latter is something that no leader can permit to occur.
That Ms Merkel ever became chancellor was a political quirk; that she has remained in office a truly impressive feat. Following re-unification the East German Merkel joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and was elected to the Bundestag. The chancellor at that time, Helmut Kohl, appointed the political novice Merkel as Minister for Women und Youth, a rather innocuous posting. For Kohl, Merkel fulfilled three important qualities: she was from East Germany, a woman and not seen as a political threat, a reliable party underling. Kohl referred to Merkel condescendingly as “my girl”. Following Kohl’s retirement in 1998 Wolfgang Schäuble became CDU Party Chairman and was destined to be the CDU’s candidate for chancellor in the upcoming bundestag election. To keep any potent male competition in the party in check, Schäuble selected the bland Merkel as CDU Secretary-General.
1999 however saw Kohl and Schaüble caught up in a massive party funding scandal. Although the affair was swept beneath the rug, following Schäuble’s resignation as party leader, it was clear that his candidacy for chancellor was no longer on the cards. In fact, aware of an imminent backlash from voters at the next election, no one wanted the post as party leader, which includes the candidacy for the chancellorship, so it was given to Merkel. The CDU male grandees assumed they would have no problem unseating her as party leader following her inevitable election defeat. As fate would have it, the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), claimed the nomination. The CSU is a provincial party that produces hordes of mediocre politicians, who rule via corruption and nepotism and an extremely suspect justice system. Every thirty years a CSU politician believes he is ordained to be chancellor of Germany. Not taken seriously by the rest of the nation, they go on to lose.
This bumptious intervention by the CSU, ending in the inevitable defeat of their candidate for chancellor, was a godsend for Ms Merkel, leaving her in a strong position. Her male competitors for the party leadership were not able to find a consensus candidate, their personal ambition impeding each other, so Ms Merkel remained politically unscathed.
In the next Bundestag election in 2005 Ms Merkel may have cut a very poor figure as the CDU/CSU candidate for the chancellorship, appearing incompetent in financial matters, and squandering a massive lead in the polls, but her party narrowly edged out the Social Democrats. The two struck a deal to share the spoils and formed a grand coalition with Merkel as chancellor.
Merkel followed the CDU tradition of permitting big business to determine policy and converting this into law. The grand coalition was the golden age of donations and sponsoring by large corporations for the CDU, CSU and Social Democrats. Many politicians in the ruling coalition benefitted personally from this munificence. There were bountiful consulting-contracts, generously remunerated seats in supervisory boards of companies and exceptionally well paid jobs after retirement from active politics, not to mention bribes.
There was one exception, however. The nuclear disaster of Fukushima occurred shortly preceding a state election in Baden-Württemberg, the CDU heartland. Despite the majority of Germans being increasingly disenchanted with nuclear energy, Ms Merkel had just revised a law phasing it out by 2021, extending the date well into the future, as proscribed by Germany’s four major energy providers. Merkel knew that her party, as a dogmatic supporter of nuclear energy, would suffer serious damage in the upcoming election in Baden-Württemberg and made a remarkable volte face, more or less reinstating the original law to phase out nuclear power stations within ten years. It was the right call. The CDU suffered a serious electoral defeat in the Baden-Württemberg, but it could have been much worse. The CDU and CSU Union had always fervently supported the nuclear industry (and the nuclear industry the CDU and CSU), and while Merkel’s decision was politically clever, it egregiously violated party dogma. It was the left (the Social Democrats were also dogmatic proponents of nuclear energy) that had fought the nuclear lobby tooth and nail for decades. Many in Merkel’s party never forgave her.
During the financial crisis, Ms Merkel did what big business asked of her: bailed out the banks, letting the taxpayer foot the bill, and the state pumped further billions into the automobile industry. This seemed to have done the trick and seemed to have restored her fortunes.
Then in 2009 Merkel committed her first cardinal error, appointing Wolfgang Schäuble as finance minister. Schäuble is a man characterised by spiteful hate, belief in German superiority and fervent loyalty to Germany’s wealthy. He was instrumental to the introduction of austerity in Germany and Europe, which encompassed all these qualities. While China, the United States, Britain to name a few, spent vast amounts to stimulate their economies, Germany abstained, enjoying the free ride. When in 2009 many European banks, including those in Germany, fell into a financial abyss, it was the high priest of austerity, Schäuble, and his acolytes who transubstantiated this into a sovereign debt crisis driving nations like Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy to the financial brink, replacing democratically elected governments by decree and attacking one of Europe’s great achievements, its social welfare system.
Schäuble saved German, French, British and other banks from collapse and provided a discredited neo-liberalism with a fillip, but he also drove millions of Europeans into penury, many to an early death for lack of adequate medical attention, not to mention suicide. The crisis however was great stuff for Germany, which enjoyed the trade advantages of a weak Euro, inexpensive labour from Europe’s newly created army of unemployed and cheap borrowing on the bond markets. Add to this the sinking real incomes of the previous ten years in Germany and you have a recipe for financial success at the cost of everyone else: destructively high current account surpluses.
While the question of austerity and Europe’s and Germany’s anaemic economic recovery was reduced to an academic war of words, Merkel committed her first major error: Ukraine. One does not need to be a foreign affairs expert to know that peace and stability in Europe depends on the integration of Russia. The two sides had made great progress in the previous quarter century. Ukraine could have been a further stepping stone in this process as a trade hub between the EU and Russia. German hubris, having been declared the “leader of Europe” due to its financial predominance, and historic German racism with regard to Slavs, led Merkel to inanely join the US attack upon Russia by prying Ukraine loose from its traditional bond with its eastern neighbour, instead of doing what Europe traditionally does so well in such situations: mediating a compromise to its own advantage.
One should also not forget that what oil was to the intervention in Iraq, fertile agricultural land is to Ukraine. The German media went into war propaganda mode. The result was a botched affair: a new war in Europe, a failed state, a loss of Russian trade and the need to subsidise a corrupt oligarchy for many years to come. Still, it was “mission accomplished”. Most Germans once again had the feeling of having an existential threat on its eastern frontier and with Vladimir Putin possessed a devil incarnate. Life was once again “in Ordnung” as the Germans would say.
It was de capo with the hysteria following Syriza’s electoral success in Greece in January 2015. I shall not bother attempting to describe German hysteria at that time, but would highly recommend watching this (it is in English and entertaining), a parody that distillates the sense of fear sown by German media.
As we know, Greece ended in much the same “mission accomplished” result as in Ukraine: profligates, liars and cheaters punished, the EU badly battered, Greece with even more debt and reduced to a client state. Outside of Germany and its EU quislings, there was a great deal of anger concerning Germany’s brutal policy towards Greece. Many Germans knew this and were uncomfortable with its nation’s destructive policy, which led to Ms Merkel’s next mistake.
The ugly German simply did not fit in with Ms Merkel’s image of herself as the leading stateswoman of Europe. To recoup her losses she obviously decided to publicly demonstrate how compassionate she and Germany are, proclaiming that all Syrian refugees would be welcome in her nation. Hardly was the announcement made than German media was heralding its “Willkommenskultur” to the world. Had it been genuine, it would have been well and truly a remarkable humanitarian feat; one the Germans are financially and logistically capable of handling. But Ms Merkel has never shown any real compassion in the past and her party has often used xenophobia to improve their ratings in the polls, declaring with regard to refugees and immigrants that “the boat is full”. Willkommenskultur is not in the DNA of Ms Merkel’s CDU and CSU.
It is not clear who Ms Merkel consulted beforehand, and inviting probably over a million Arabs to move into a nation that is inherently racist was a case of not being in touch with the pulse of the nation, not to mention her party. Similarly to renouncing nuclear energy in 2011, Ms Merkel has once again crossed one of her party’s red lines. Maybe someone had whispered in her ear that this could solve Germany’s demographic problem. Maybe she was convinced that this would be an opportunity to scupper the newly introduced minimum wage – the idea was placed in the public domain by the Council of Businesses shortly after Ms Merkel’s announcement welcoming refugees. Maybe Ms Merkel thought she would receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In the meantime most Germans are of the opinion that they do not have a willkommenskultur and do not want a million new refugees, especially Arabs, in their nation, where there is currently a shortage of cheap housing and decently paid jobs, not to mention a constant reduction of social benefits thanks to Mr Schäuble.
Ms Merkel first tried dragooning the nations between Germany and the Middle East to stop the refugees before they reached the German border – unsuccessfully. She then tried to convince the whole of the EU to accept a large proportion of the refugees – unsuccessfully. Then there was the prerequisite by Schäuble that the cost of the refugees in Germany would not violate Germany’s Holy Grail: a balanced budget without raising taxes – but it will create a deficit. Since then Ms Merkel finds herself the subject of a campaign, as polite and subtle as it may be, reserved for the likes of Putin and Varoufakis. Every few days Ms Merkel implements a further climb down with regard to her refugee policy. One can no longer speak of a willkommenskultur. Decisive is the portrayal within her party and in the media that Ms Merkel lacks any sort of credible plan to deal with the crisis she single-handedly created.
Then there were the recent pictures of Ms Merkel kowtowing to Turkey’s nascent dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan briefly before Turkey’s national elections this month. The list of gifts on offer to Erdogan to stymie refugees from crossing onto mainland Europe was impressive: three billion euros in cash, delay of critical reports on Turkey’s progress toward EU membership and a re-opening of stalled negotiations. That Ms Merkel’s and the EU’s policy was forged by panic is borne out by the fact that they were prepared to grant Turkey’s citizens visa rights in a situation where Erdogan is aggressively attacking the political opposition, critical media as well as the secular society, and a civil war is raging with Kurdish separatists. The next refugee crisis, this time with Turkish citizens, is just round the corner. This does not resemble the actions of a competent leader.
Add to this the question of the business elite that has been advising Ms Merkel. Thanks to US investigations it has become clear that the heads of German banks were criminal and in the case of Deutsche Bank not even repentant. The same is the true with the management of Volkswagen, which is more concerned about keeping its managers out of US jails than protecting the environment. In Greece respected German companies have been exposed as one of the main perpetrators of bribery. The German armed forces have purchased one weapons system after the other from German companies that are not fit for purpose – no one is investigating the possibility of corruption being responsible. These are the same people who have been dictating her policy. Even Germany’s successful bid for the 2006 football world championship was attained thanks to massive bribery. These cases cannot be blamed on Ms Merkel, but these are the people she likes to be seen and photographed with, not to mention the companies that generously payroll her party.
A crisis that the Germans have not yet comprehended is their involvement in their first Vietnam. Having joined the military coalition in Afghanistan, Ms Merkel has not been capable of extricating Germany from the war. Despite plans to terminate its military engagement there by 2016, the mandate was recently extended and the number of troops increased,. The topic is politely being ignored in German media. Under Ms Merkel Germany has become militarily involved in an increasing number of conflicts including more recently Mali and Iraq.
Now Ms Merkel’s bête noire, Vladimir Putin, the man who had been ostracised from the western political stage, is, due to the war in Syria and Iraq, making a political comeback. He has been meeting President Obama and John Kerry as the rapprochement between the US and Russia accelerates. The French president Hollande is currently travelling to Moscow, not Berlin, following the ISIS offensive in Paris. The Middle East trumps Ukraine, terrorism over land-grab, and Ms Merkel again looks rather ridiculous.
As I mentioned in my last post, the global economic slowdown is like an avalanche increasing in speed and mass as it approaches the EU and Germany, whose frail recovery has been driven solely by exports. There is little room for economic manoeuvre due to Mr Schäuble’s reign of austerity terror, short of firing him. If Germany returns to recession, then there is little hold for Ms Merkel, should she still be chancellor.
Last, but not least, is the fact that Ms Merkel has led her party for 17 years of which she has been chancellor for ten. Voters eventually become fatigued with its leader. Nothing new has come from Ms Merkel and her acolytes for years, just the same neoliberal policy and furtherance of the interests of big business. Good, she has successfully resurrected the Russian threat and crushed Greece, but those are evanescent victories. Also in her own party there is the next generation of politicians impatiently waiting for their turn at the trough, but are blocked by Ms Merkel and her cronies.
Maybe Ms Merkel will survive the current crisis. This might be achieved with a deal to relinquish her party leadership for the next bundestag elections in 2017. There may be a brief respite following the recent ISIS attack in Paris. Still the feeling on the ground in Germany with regard to Ms Merkel has changed. The love affair is over. No date has yet been set for the divorce.