Merkel's pathos-free pragmatism lost on her idealistic young audience


For the chancellor, Europe’s path out of crisis is obvious. But not all Europeans agree, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin

ANGELA MERKEL distrusts political theatrics, but even she seemed impressed by the backdrop for her Tuesday night address.

When Berlin’s New Museum – in fact, 150 years old – reopened in 2009 after seven decades as a ruin, the renovation made no attempt to cover the scars of the past. Behind Merkel, the 19th century Greek pillars scarred with soot and bullet holes of past conflict contrasted with the new marble staircase before her, an engineering marvel with the confident stamp of the new Germany.

Merkel’s speech was similarly confident, arguing that Europe has a simple choice: adapt or die.

For two years the German chancellor has delivered variations on this speech, arguing that Europe’s founding fathers’ vision of a united, peaceful Europe is no longer enough to secure the continent’s future.

Instead, she argues, Europeans will have to leave their comfort zone, embrace reform and pool their sovereignty to salvage what they can of their cherished social model in a globalised world’s survival of the fittest. To aid this effort, and boost competitiveness, EU members must adopt binding budgetary rules to forcibly introduce sustainable state finances.

“We can only preserve what we have if we strengthen our Europe house,” she said. “European politics is, step-by-step, increasingly becoming domestic policy. Now it is about forming the political union that wasn’t formed at the introduction of the euro.”

Speech over, the dangerous gap between ideal and reality was exposed in the subsequent discussion with hand-picked, high-flying students from all over Europe. They should have been an enthusiastic, optimistic audience for Chancellor Merkel, Europe’s future elite.

But each question exposed a deep-seated pessimism among Europe’s young about the continent’s future.

Chancellor Merkel, for all her talent and skill, was either unable or unwilling to employ the empathy such a situation requires.

As in the wider European debate, the German leader in Berlin’s New Museum came across as a competent but jaded political midwife, waiting impatiently for the new improved EU.

For Merkel, Eur- ope’s path out of crisis is intellectually obvious, a scientific certainty based on incontrovertible economic and demographic projections. Her vision is coloured by the pathos-free pragmatism of a woman who arrived in the EU as a 35-year-old East German. But sometimes hard facts need an emotional nudge to acceptance.

When a young man in the Berlin audience asked how politicians can win back the voters’ trust in the European project, Merkel proposed boosting worker mobility by integrating national social welfare systems.

A young woman mentioned how the euro zone crisis has eroded trust in Europe.

“What vision can you offer us?” she asked. “Will there be a European dream?” Chancellor Merkel flailed around for an answer, eventually settling on common defence policy and Nato.

On and on it went: concerned questions from idealistic young Europeans swatted away with sober, Merkellian answers.

A nervous young Greek woman asked the chancellor what she could do to improve the employment prospects of young people in Greece.

Carefully, diplomatically, Merkel said she “will not participate” in bullying Greece out of the euro zone. But there was little anyone could do, she added, unless the Greeks themselves changed their “long tradition” of opaque political and economic structures.

“The situation is difficult but I don’t see any alternative to reform,” said Merkel. “I hope we can find a common future; we’re not doing this to create difficulties for people – what interest would we have in that?” The evening ended on a downbeat note, the audience verdict mixed.

“I didn’t expect her to be so tough,” said Merveille Mubakemeschi, a political science student at Berlin’s Free University. “When she says more Europe is coming our way, I’d like to hear more what citizens should be doing to help with this.”

Julia Kowalski, an economics student, was more optimistic.

“I was surprised by her positive outlook in the face of so many negative, worried questions,” she said. “Her message is that the European governments are handling this and will work out a compromise.” The Berlin evening reflected a wider European debate about the German leader’s euro zone reform strategy. Should Merkel be condemned for offering uncompromising austerity and home truths? Or respected for resisting empty promises of quick fixes? German voters seem to respect her no-nonsense approach: an opinion poll yesterday gave Merkel her highest popularity rating since returning to office in 2009.

In the New Museum, she tried to end the evening on an upbeat – or at least conciliatory – note.

Europe needs to find a “firm resolve in difficult suffering”, she said, quoting Friedrich Schiller’s text from Ode to Joy, the European anthem. “The suffering in Europe,” she added, “was once bigger than what we have to manage today.”