March 27, 2011

Populist Flip-Flops Unpopular; Or, Merkel’s Lost Plot

I consider myself something of a Johnny-come-lately regarding German politics, but I find I can watch events unfold here with a detached interest that would be impossible in my native and other adopted lands. Were I to speak of British politics I should have to declare this whole site ‘not suitable for work’ and dust off all my worst French. The Germans, however, are slowly but surely making a dog’s dinner out of a gourmet meal, and it is nothing if not good entertainment.

Angela Merkel, who has enjoyed the respect of the international community over the years, and whose manful leading of Germany through tough economic times, has recently lost the plot. The soundest advice for politicians who preside over successful economies is to sit back and take the credit. Germany is the powerhouse of Europe, bucking every trend of the last couple of years, and generally cutting the figure of the angry fist-banging father at Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish fiscal ineptitude. While the rest of the civilised world makes the case for cuts, Germany is doing rather nicely thank you. Surely any leader would capitalise effortlessly on such a situation.

Not so Mrs. Merkel, whose trousers have been slipping of late. I have detected a palpable fear in recent times – a sense of the tide turning for no good reason – and Merkel’s response has been nothing short of political panic. In politics we expect lies, cheating and double dealing. We expect promises to be broken and spin to be spun. Nevertheless, we are usually sure that under all the rhetoric there lie some true colours, and that in a pinch any given politician will adhere to his core convictions. In times of economic strength, we do not expect political leaders to sell to the lowest bidder. And these expectations make Merkel’s machinations most perplexing.

First there was the ‘multiculturalism is dead’ line, intended to appeal to the wavering right, which surely would not have deserted her in any case so long as the economy kept ticking over. Instead of shoring up support she merely created a shit-storm of hostility and negative attention. Some may say she was merely pointing out the elephant in the room. Others objected that a failure cannot be declared until a genuine attempt has been made.

Then there was the Guttenberg affair, in which she valued popular opinion over political integrity. It was inevitable that the pressure brought to bear on Guttenberg would force him out, and she needed in that instant to lead, instead of waxing anti-intellectual, populist, and illogical. Had she shown strength in making the tough decision to fire the man, then the populace might have had her respect. As it was, she merely looked weak and out of step. She was tainted by his indiscretion, and in pretending not to understand its importance she alienated herself from Germany’s educated electorate. That elite may be a minority of number, but the retention of power is rarely just about numbers.

Next Germany’s nuclear issues went up in smoke with the Japanese earthquake. Merkel was firmly in the nuclear camp until the wind started to blow from the East. Prevarication is never a savvy political move, and again Merkel has shown herself unable to hold firm to a conviction under passing populist pressure. Germans march and form human chains and generally make a great din about nuclear power, but the reality is that they are surrounded on all sides by nuclear-friendly nations whose reactors are already large in number. If Germany doesn’t boost its own nuclear option they will merely buy the power from France. And if the earth opens up and swallows a French reactor it won’t make much difference that it’s taking place next door. Merkel has wavered, backtracking on policies and plans, waiting to see how things look from day to day. It’s not political leadership so much as low politicking. The lack of conviction has cost her votes, and will ultimately bring about her fall. The Baden-Wuerttemberg elections are probably a taste of things to come.

To top all this, Germany has failed to rally around its allies over Libya, just when a bit of strong moral leadership was called for. The whys and wherefores of the action are by the by, but right now Merkel is sitting in the surprisingly long shadow cast by Nicolas Sarkozy, looking less manly on the international stage every day, and generally leading well-meaning observers to ask what the bloody hell is up with Germany and her perpetual aloofness in international affairs.

Merkel was the strong man of Europe for a good run of years. But as I’m sure I’ve said before, no man looks good in flip flops.


  1. Doctor, I am glad to see you broach such a mundane and serious subject.
    You are surely aware that Merkel was elected and re-elected by the right wing, such as it is, of the German political spectrum.
    The Christians on the right are against multiculturalism; they voice the national worries over Muslims in Germany. Merkel is too sophisticated to take them seriously apparently, but she might pander to them. Of course, polite opinion forces everyone to ignore completely these people, their votes, and their opinions. We will have to pretend from now on that they do not exist...
    The FDP is for freer markets, less regulation, more enterprise - but Merkel knows Germans can never let go of their welfare state, so she does not attempt to do much.
    Perhaps the polite opinions you also voice seem have triumphed most in the EU - breach after breach of treatise, Merkel wasted German money to save the EU bureaucracy and various bankrupt countries. I might think all these events are inevitably to happen again, testimony to the corruption and incompetence of the EU. But that is an impolite opinion and must readily be discarded. Merkel played the left-wing game: long waiting, hesitation, heavy-handed orders (especially the scene where the EU recommended that the Irish not hold elections...), panic, and then self-flattery.
    As for Libya, the humanitarian needs of the polite opinion require that some of us go and kill thousands of people there and, of course, also die. This is an impolite way of putting things, but it is accurate. Germany is right to stay out: it might not be our problem. And nobody has said with any firmness or coherence who we must kill in order to feel better. A war has started - undeclared, unplanned, and without deliberation...

  2. Merkel's basic problem is that she doesn't stand for anything - she doesn't do "the vision thing" because she doesn't have any vision apart from getting power and keeping it; something she has proved very good at, so good that she has succeeded in destroying every possible rival within her own party. This is a major problem for the CDU; there is no alternative to Merkel at the moment.

    Her lack of vision was a large ingredient of her success as leader of a grand coalition - she was able to take a moderating, chairman's role. Now that she has real power, having traded in the Social Democrats for Westerwelle's much weaker Liberals, she doesn't know what to do with it - except to try to follow what the opinion polls say is most popular.

    With Fukushima and Libya, this can't work. As you point out, the German fear of nuclear power goes beyond rational - it is visceral. If she wants to reflect the popular mood, she has to be anti-nuclear; but the change is so obviously opportunistic that nobody's buying it.

    Libya is even worse. Germans do not like young German soldiers dying anywhere - no matter how good the cause is. That's one lesson they really have learned from WWII. Kosovo, Afghanistan, it doesn't matter - the Germans have decided that they just don't do war.

    The two (three is you count the German navy at the Horn of Africa) military adventures the Bundeswehr has been involved in up to now (Kosovo and Afghanistan) were both decided on by Social Democrat/Green governments. They could make such decisions confident in the knowledge that the Christian Democrat and Liberal oppositions would not be able to basically criticise them. But if Merkel sends German soldiers off to fight somewhere she faces the danger of the opposition hanging out peace flags and becoming really popular for doing so.

    To use an old cliché, unlike Margaret Thatcher (whom I personally detested), she doesn't have the balls to take unpopular decisions and push them through. The lady's not for turning? Merkel's been turning so much she's grown dizzy.

  3. Francis, I think you pretty much nailed it.

  4. I would add something: if Thatcher is not for turning and she is detested - perhaps detestable - in despite of her great manliness, how can you also contemn a lady who is for turning? I fail to see what could be done.

    My problem with Merkel is that she was elected and re-elected by the right and she has betrayed them, for the sake of the popularity only the left can offer in Europe. That is just not right...

  5. @Kravien I presume your comment was addressed to me.

    There are two general reasons I can see for antipathy to a politician:

    (i) The principles for which they stand and represent. There were so many things which Thatcher stood for to which I was (and still am) opposed that I had no problem detesting her. I honestly don't know what Merkel stands for, apart from some fuzzy general views that might be seen as being centre-right. She has made speeches at party conferences where she has professed her adherence to "Christian values" without ever becoming particularly specific in an ideological-theological fashion.

    (ii) Their conduct in their practice of the political business. In this sense, Thatcher was at least consistent with her principles (e.g. the destruction of social structures because she believed that there "was no such thing as society"), though one could perhaps have found her arrogance and disrespectful attitude towards those whose views different from her own distasteful.
    What I find offensive about Merkel in this context is her attempt to rule according to the results of opinion polls. As someone with admitted left-wing tendencies, I much rather discoursing with a committed philosophically-founded conservative than with someone whose principles, such as they are, are fluid.

  6. I believe your first point would tend to justify political hatred on a massive scale. If disagreement with another's principles is the proper basis for detestation, polite disagreement, otherwise necessary in political discussions and deliberations, I think, would no longer be justified. - I do not see how discoursing could be possible; certainly, it would not be necessary or recommended...

    Are not you are wrong to dislike Thatcher's arrogance and contempt for you - when you justify that attitude, theoretically? Perhaps you do not really want what you said you want. Perhaps detestation is only acceptable in the defense of your principles?


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