Merkel meets ghosts of the spendthrift German past

Sat, Sep 29, 2012, 01:00

Three encounters put the German chancellor’s budgetary zeal into perspective, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin

THIS WEEK Angela Merkel paid tribute to three politicians who all learned to their cost not to underestimate her. Though very different characters, the three are the kind of politician that, her critics say, Angela Merkel will never be.

The first was Edmund Stoiber, the 70-year-old ex-leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party of the larger Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He elbowed Merkel aside to take on chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the 2002 general election.

Merkel had her revenge when Stoiber lost – narrowly – and was ousted from power. Launching his autobiography in Berlin on Tuesday, she and Stoiber joked about their endless fights and one particularly bitter row over healthcare fees.

“Even today I was, rationally speaking, 100 per cent right,” said Merkel. But in hindsight, she said Stoiber had shown a better sense for what Germans would accept. It was a rare acknowledgement of fallibility from Merkel: in politics you can be right and still be wrong.

On Wednesday she attended the 70th birthday celebration for finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, whom she infamously shafted 12 years ago for his involvement in a fundraising scandal in their Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

When asked about their relationship today Schäuble, the man who might otherwise have been chancellor, said Merkel enjoys his full loyalty but will never have his friendship.

In a birthday speech Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund and former French finance minister, said: “Europe has a heart and it beats in Wolfgang Schäuble. May it beat for many years to come.”

Schäuble was visibly delighted, fully aware that no one has ever tried such European flattery on the German leader seated beside him.

Merkel’s final rendezvous on Thursday evening was her most challenging: marking the 30th anniversary of Helmut Kohl’s rise to power in Bonn.

Four years ago, the 82-year-old suffered a fall and a stroke. Since then he has been wheelchair- bound and has had difficulty speaking. His physical decline and the passage of time have softened party hearts hardened by the CDU’s 1999 illegal fundraising scandal and his refusal to name names of donors.

This week the ruling CDU rehabilitated its former leader and bathed in the reflected glory of his legacy as the father of German and European unification. But not everyone in Germany is feeling magnanimous. One news magazine mentioned the unmentionable on its front cover, asking: “Is Helmut Kohl to blame for the euro crisis?” It reflected the views of a growing eurosceptic conservative class that blames Kohl for agreeing to European monetary union, without real political and fiscal union, at the 1996 Dublin summit.

In the view of such people, Kohl left a poisonous legacy that has come to fruition in an isolated Bundesbank and potentially unlimited liability for others’ debts through the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund.

With Kohl barely able to speak, the task of defending his European legacy against this loud German minority has fallen, ironically enough, to Merkel.

The East German woman he brought to cabinet in 1990 as his “mädchen” [maiden], who snatched the CDU leadership from Schäuble a decade later at the height of the donation scandal by urging the party distance itself from Kohl.

Kohl has been a vocal critic of his successor: last year he condemned Berlin for allowing the crisis sow doubt among its neighbours over “where Germany stands and where it wants to go” in Europe.

On Thursday the German leader tried rebuilding a bridge to Kohl by facing down Germany’s eurosceptics. She also challenged her critics, who sniff that no East German of her generation could ever develop a truly European heart in the Bonn tradition.

She said: “For too long we’ve lived at the expense of others: the state at the expense of its citizens, citizens at the expense of fellow citizens and . . . all of us at the cost of future generations”.

What sounded like another Merkel euro zone speech was, in fact, a quote from Kohl’s first address as chancellor in 1982 to the Bundestag in Bonn. Reforms are difficult in any era, Merkel said, and politicians should never forget their human cost.

“We can make clear that [today’s] reforms are not an end in themselves, but have the goal of creating the conditions for sustainable growth for the good of all,” she said.

“Europe is our destiny and our future . . . This is the backdrop to Europe’s challenges today and I’m fully confident we will master them.”

Under the cool gaze of her estranged mentor, Merkel struck a remarkably Kohlesque tone.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, Merkel’s three encounters this week may have given her pause for thought on her European politics. It’s not enough to have the right political arguments: it’s essential, too, to strike the right emotional note.