German Chancellor Angela Merkel should be happy nowadays: her party’s approval ratings aren’t bad, and her own are very good. She no longer has serious rivals within the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), while the left opposition is fragmented into four parties. Her response to the European crisis has prevailed – or at least that is the impression that she conveys, and that most Germans believe. So everything is fine and dandy, right?
Not so fast. Two issues could complicate Merkel’s re-election bid in the autumn of 2013. Domestically, her coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), is disintegrating. Even if the FDP survives the next election (which is by no means certain), the current coalition is unlikely to retain its parliamentary majority, leaving Merkel increasingly dependent on the Social Democrats (SPD). While this need not matter to her too much as long as she retains the chancellorship, in Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD’s leader, she faces – for the first time – an opponent whom she would underestimate at her peril.
But the real danger to Merkel is external: the European crisis. If she is unlucky, the crisis will come to a head at the start of the German election year, and all previous calculations could be moot, because, despite Germans’ frustration with Europe, the electorate would punish severely those who allowed Europe to fail.
The European Union’s economy is sliding into a severe and, in all likelihood, long-lasting recession, largely self-inflicted. While Germany is still trying to banish the specter of hyperinflation with strict eurozone austerity measures, the EU crisis countries are facing a real threat of deflation, with potentially disastrous consequences. It is only a question of time – no longer very much time – before economic destabilization gives rise to political instability.
Hungary, where democratic backsliding appears to be taking hold, provides a foretaste of a Europe in which the eurozone crisis and deflation persist. The mood in the Mediterranean EU members, as well as in Ireland, is heating up, owing not only to the tightening squeeze of austerity, but also – and perhaps more importantly – to the absence of policies that offer people hope for a better future. The explosive nature of current trends, which point to eventual re-nationalization of sovereignty from the bottom up, is greatly underestimated in Berlin.
The crisis has now reached Italy and is threatening to spread to France. With Mario Monti’s premiership, Italy has mobilized its best people, and neither Italy nor Europe will get a better government for the foreseeable future. If Monti’s administration is toppled – either in parliament or in the streets – the EU’s fourth-largest economy could come crashing down. Monti is urgently calling for help. Where is it?
Developments in France (the second-largest eurozone economy) should also not be underestimated in this presidential election year. If a majority of the French come to believe that a course of action is being imposed on them from outside – and by Germany, no less! – they will respond with traditional Gallic stubbornness.
What is at stake is less the election’s outcome than the margin between President Nicolas Sarkozy and the far-right National Front leader, Marine Le Pen – and whether she overtakes him to qualify for the second-round run-off against the Socialist candidate. While she would be unlikely to win the presidency, she could reshape and realign the French right. For that reason, a Sarkozy debacle would drastically reduce his Socialist successor’s room for maneuver on European policy, fundamentally altering France’s position in Europe.
But, while the French election’s outcome will hinge to a crucial extent on European crisis politics, Germany’s government acts as if this were none of its concern. Instead, the main – almost exclusive – topic in Berlin is the upcoming election. And the central question is not, “What needs to be done now in the interest of Europe?” Rather, it is, “How much can people in Germany be expected to accept – in particular, how much honesty?”
No one will act in a way that jeopardizes their electoral prospects, at least while there are still alternatives. So it is conceivable that Germany is not at all interested in a serious effort to resolve Europe’s crisis, because that would mean taking big risks and investing a lot of money.
The CDU-FDP coalition prefers to sugarcoat the situation by convincing themselves of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy, abetted by those in the European crisis countries unwilling to perform and reform and whose only purpose is to make the Germans pay. So far, Merkel’s coalition is like someone driving against traffic, dead certain that everyone else is going the wrong way.
Europe’s disintegration has already advanced much further than it might appear. Distrust and national egoism are spreading rapidly, devouring European solidarity and common purpose.
Institutionally, Europe has been on the right track since the last summit, but it threatens to disintegrate from the bottom up. To save the euro – which is essential, because the European project’s fate depends on the success of monetary union – Europe needs action now: in addition to indispensable austerity measures and structural reforms, there is no way to succeed without a viable economic program that will assure growth.
That won’t come cheap. If Merkel’s government believes that paying lip service to growth is enough, it is playing with fire: a euro collapse in which not only Germans would be badly burned.