Special Reports / The most important elections in Europe

A pedagogy of crisis

Marek Prawda · 17 September 2013
Today’s contradicting expectations from Germany and extreme opinions come as a confirmation of a special status of this country in Europe. The present German Kanzlerin reassures us about her pro-European instincts but also about her resolute defence of the German interests. Disappearance of the reason for which the decision to restructure the Euro Zone has been postponed, and reappearance of a tempestuous discussion on subsequent aid packages will be the major effects of Germany’s coming…

From the Brussels perspective, the parliamentary election in the largest EU country due for September has gained a somewhat mythical importance. Everyone deposits their hopes in it: some, for the reforms to get unblocked and integration accelerated; others, for quitting certain overly ambitious projects. Whilst some would expect that a policy of excessive savings be replaced by one of growth, others would opt for a more profound consolidation. Hence, there is clearly no chance to make everybody happy in Europe once this election is over. Apparently, the Bundesrepublik’s election campaign tells us more about ourselves and our perplexities in the EU, rather than about Germany itself. The country stays relatively quiet, whilst EU-related subjects only surfaced there in the last phase of the campaign.

Debating under dictation of nerves

The year of the German election has exposed us to a temptation to explain everything Berlin is doing, or failing to do, in terms of ‘election tactics’. A lot of time has been spent on discovering the hidden agenda, the true intents, and speculating what is going to happen after 22nd September. The Germans  have uttered their denials, but were not trusted. Thus, as the first positive effect of this election, an end will be put to this counterproductive dispute – the European debate hopefully re-centring on the merits.

This debate is going on under crisis circumstances, and to the accompaniment of rather common complaints about the ‘German dictate’. But even more disappointed we tend to be when seeing the Germans withdraw from their ‘leadership role’ in the EU: if they have most of the instruments at their disposal, they ought to render them more strongly involved in combating the crisis. Such contradictory expectations or extreme evaluations essentially confirm that Germany enjoys a special status in Europe today. Countries which are confronted withthe like responses are thereby told that they are treated as superpowers, regardless of whether they want it or not. The present German Chancellor reassures us about her pro-European instincts but also about her resolute defence of the German interests. The latter aspect is certainly stronger emphasised than under her Christian-Democratic predecessor Helmut Kohl, as the voters’ expectations are now different.

In the present crisis situation, the climate of talk about cooperation within the EU has also changed. Durable instruments to prevent trouble in the future have been developed; we now can do more than merely ‘extinguish the fires’: there has never been so much of a ‘Europe’. Yet, our mood is still not too good. The sense of shared fortunes and reciprocal dependencies, which essentially means closeness, has increased; it is, however, a cold closeness of Europeans who have more claims against one another than mutual trust, with their differing understanding of what (the) crisis is. ‘More of Europe’ would mean more money in aid packages, some would say; or, more control and financial discipline, as others would put it. The temptation has increased to look for solutions within a smaller group, without caring about the Union as a whole; splits have appeared about and between‘takers’ and ‘donors’, the North and the South, the Euro Zone and the remainder; national interests are recently expressed in a more, say, direct fashion. Whereas this would be comprehensible in itself, the divisions within the EU tend to get exacerbated, if not toxic, when not inveterate in a sense of community. The crisis antidote discussion is turning into a race for the right to exclusively interpret the reasons and to denounce those to blame. In the language of politicians, who by nature have to solicit diverse voters, these interpretations are reduced to simplified slogans. Since people find it hard to get it straight when tackling the objectively compound matter, with the EU having ceased to be an involuntarily accepted and positive point of reference, a sort of ‘spiritual homelessness’ may appear. An atmosphere is emerging where, for instance, tabloids in a country of the North greet the Minister of Finance in one South country with a headline reading, “Welcome to the country where people get up at six every day to work hard, and so on till they turn 67 of age!”. The response comes in the form of charges evoking World War 2. The spiral is going further and further down, with no end in sight.

The election puzzle

What is it that we can learn about the public mood of the German society in the context of this coming election? It seems that the society will go through a real endurance test much later, when Berlin is forced to accept the possible restructuring of the debts of the countries benefiting from aid programmes – that is, in terms of real expenditure, rather than credits only. At present, the voters are told Germany has profited on the crisis, for, providing a safe harbour for investors, the country is paying extremely low interest upon its debts. Populist sentiments are taken note of, but even though they might be stronger compared to what is visible with the unaided eye, the extremist parties will take no essential part in this election.

From the Brussels perspective, more interesting seem the effects for Germany of a certain evolution of the ‘pedagogy of crisis’ – namely, liberal into social. In line with the former, which is closer to Berlin’s concepts, pressure of the markets is the only factor capable of making politicians reform; without structural reforms, trust from the markets will not be regained. For several months now, however, criticism of the policy of cuts and debt reduction as the basic criteria has been strengthening. There is more understanding now for growth-stimulating actions. Although the dispute is more focused on communication than reality (any politics must merge these two elements), it has animated a discussion on the European social model which has always formed a dam against populist movements, while being an important source of democratic legitimacy. The European leaders, subject today to the EU-imposed rigours of savings policies, feel deprived, all of a sudden, of their own instruments with which to build the dam and stabilise the democracy. Taking the opportunity, they have reproached Germany for setting its hand to undermine the social model in Europe through maintaining low salaries and flooding Europe with cheap commodities. Berlin is astonished – as much as it considers its reforms and the cooperative model of employer-employee relations a historical success.

In spite of their spectacular disputes around what needs being emphasised in the economic policy, Germany’s chief political forces stand in most cases on equal footing. Regardless of whether the Christian Democrats will form a coalition with the Liberals or Social Democrats, to point out to the two most plausible options, Chancellor Merkel will not markedly deviate from the present ‘consolidation-oriented’ track. Hence, the major effect of the election will be disappearance of the reason for which the decision to restructure the Euro Zone has been postponed, and reappearance of a tempestuous discussion on subsequent aid packages.

* Original text in Polish. Translated by EUROTRAD Wojciech Gilewski.