Special Reports / The most important elections in Europe

The Merkel Era and what next?

Piotr Buras · 17 September 2013
The almost certain electoral success of Angela Merkel in the elections to the Bundestag on September 22 will be a confirmation of the exceptional symbiosis binding the chancellor, who has been holding power for the last eight years, and the German society. Probably no German chancellor since the time of Willy Brandt had such a good understanding of social sentiment and none stood so well for the zeitgeist of the political époque.

It is customary in Germany to refer to the period of office of particular chancellors with the high-sounding notion of era, regardless of the calibre of their actual achievements. Today sociologists agree, that the mood for political change (Wechselstimmung) is not present in Germany. This means, that the public want the „Merkel era” to last. There are undoubtedly many reasons why such a wish is understandable. However, a great deal suggests that the Faustian desire for the moment to “stay, thou art so beautiful!” is based on the largely false conviction, that maintaining the status quo is the best guarantee for a bright future. In fact the “Merkel era” that has become synonymous with peace and prosperity by the Rhine and the Spree, particularly during the last four years, may well turn out to be no more than a transitional period between a decade of post-reunification turbulence and renunciation, and the necessity for Germany to make a significant switch in a few essential policy areas. A period, which leaves several open questions and unfinished business, instead of being a turning point that opens a new stage in the history of the Federal Republic.

The Teflon Lady

Merkel is notorious as a post-political, Teflon politician without strong opinions or a clear vision. This is not the place for reflecting on the fairness of this assessment. Yet it is no coincidence that a person with such a profile reaches record popularity and enjoys public trust. One can justly argue, that this corresponds to a European norm, and many contemporary statesmen and women could be described in a similar way, also in Poland. But in Germany the post-politics and post-ideology which have prevailed in the last ten years, are, in addition, linked with the specificity of the country that had to reinvent itself in various ways after 1990. Many social and political conflicts, such as those concerning national identity, the role of Germany in foreign policy, or the relation between the eastern and western parts of the country, have emerged from the Cold War icebox. Others, such as questions on nuclear energy, environmental protection, the attitude towards homosexuality, the position on multiculturalism, have converged with the belated generation exchange in the world of politics – the departure of the “long generation” of Helmut Kohl and the helm being taken over by the power hungry ’68 generation and the Gerhard Schröder  government, formed in 1998.

Merkel came into power in 2005, when most of these conflicts had been resolved. Schröder’s social reforms (change in the rules of citizenship, withdrawal from nuclear energy, equal rights for homosexual marriages) amounted to a political atonement for the liberalisation of the German society over the last few decades. Reforms of the labour market and the social security system (Agenda 2010) were a necessary, albeit painful adaptation of the German economic model to the new realities of the global economy. The heated debates on the participation of German soldiers in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan eradicated more than one taboo, opening the way to a new, though volatile consensus on the question of the international involvement of  Berlin. Fifteen years after the reunification, the East-West division of the country remained an important issue, but it was no longer in the foreground of the German political reality. From this perspective, Merkel took over the government of a nation more reconciled with itself  than perhaps ever before, a nation expecting stability after a period of violent changes. Undoubtedly, the merit of chancellor Merkel (and the secret of her success) was that she responded to that expectation perfectly. Also, despite internal party resistance, she managed to modernise the conservative CDU, turning it into one of the pillars of the new social consensus (change of position on the role of women, energy policy, and family policy).

In recent years Merkel has not been the author of any groundbreaking reforms, perhaps with the exception of abolishing conscription and an about-turn in the area of the Energiewende (against the earlier decisions and under the pressure of public sentiment) [for more on Energiewende, see: kulturaliberalna.pl/2013/05/28/kemfert-jakobik-wisniewski-patocka-wolnosc-klimat-elektrycznosc/]. Still in grand coalition with the SPD (2005-2009), she skilfully averted a longer recession of the German economy during the crisis, by introducing economic stimulus packages and so called short-time working. Under her rule, Germany literally bloomed in the European crisis, taking advantage of the favourable economic constellation (low interest on bonds and competitive advantages). In European politics, Merkel responded to the public need to impose on the EU adherence to German principles  (austerity, reforms),  all the while diverging from them gradually and almost imperceptibly for  the citizens – for the sake of EU and German interests. This “Merkiavellistic” (Ulrich Beck) policy paid off: thanks to the position of her government during the crisis, Merkel is breaking records of popularity in Germany, and the confidence towards the euro and the EU once again rose in the recent months.

The not-so-bright future

Merkel turned out to be the ideal politician, considering public expectation and the spirit of the times. Her swerving political style of avoiding conflicts and large scale plans  may prove a heavy burden for the future. In reality the Merkelian era of peace and complacency, that Germans are so eager to rejoice in, is fuelled by numerous illusions. Germans enjoy listening to compliments concerning their economic model, but they forget about the deficits, that may cost them dearly in a none too distant future: weak education, underinvested  public infrastructure and a shortage of qualified labour.

Today’s social peace is based on the so far good economic output, though its sustainability is by no means certain, for above stated reasons. There is no shortage of potential social tensions: material inequalities and blocked advancement opportunities for a large part of the population are perhaps the most visible cracks on the Rhenish model of capitalism. Merkel reassured the Germans by restoring their belief, that the return to the deutschmark would not be a good choice, yet she failed to prepare them for the costs of saving the common currency, which may soon seriously affect the German account (the new bail-out for Greece, and perhaps even a debt reduction for countries of southern Europe). During the time of Merkel the debate on Germany’s international involvement has regressed – this concerns not only the reluctance to participate in foreign armed interventions, but above all the lack of strategic reflexion on Germany’s role in the world in a situation when over the last ten years the expectations towards Germany dramatically increased, especially in Europe.

Contrary to appearances, Germany is facing a period of none too easy choices – independently of who takes office after September 22. In the course of the present campaign the opposition parties – the SPD and the Green Party – have dared to break the taboo and demanded tax raises for the most wealthy for the sake of public investment and reducing inequalities. There are more themes that require debating. However the parties of the current coalition (CDU/CSU and the FDP) prefer the policy of sedation („Germany is strong and should remain so”), whilst the opposition does not have sufficient power to convince the public that an alternative to the present policy is not only possible, but also necessary. If Angela Merkel does not run out of determination or luck, saving the euro will go down as the trademark of her “era”. It would be a considerable achievement. But the interest of the whole of Europe would be better served by a Germany that, after a reassuring decade of the “second economic miracle”, would gather the strength to face challenges, which will determine its condition in 10-15 years.

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