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.