Sceptical voters need to hear why EU matters


GERMANY:The EU and the euro zone are increasingly seen by Germans as an expensive albatross

ANGELA MERKEL is not known for her glittering rhetorical ability and, when she tries, one wishes she hadn’t bothered.

In a December speech to the Bundestag, she described the euro as “our common destiny” and efforts to stabilise the currency as “preserving the European Union’s grandiose idea of peace and freedom”.

Grandiose indeed. Dr Merkel’s effort to place the current euro zone crisis in a wider historical EU framework was admirable but, in reading the words from a page in her trademark atonal voice, she didn’t even sound like she was convincing herself.

It was a dud note to end a year of increasingly dissonant chords from Berlin that left think tankers here wondering if Germany had completed the transformation from the EU’s “special” state to just another member looking out for number one.

“Angela Merkel doesn’t see the EU as a project for peace, like Adenauer and Kohl, but rather a community of interests, an attitude that is far from selfless,” said political scientist Prof Heinrich Oberreuter.

“This more nationalist view of European matters began with Gerhard Schröder but has continued seamlessly under her.” In the traditional Adenauer-Kohl tradition, German interests and European interests were one and the same. But 20 years after unification handed Germany back its sovereignty, resolving the so-called “German question”, the euro zone crisis has thrown up a German question: what now for Germany in Europe? Can an East German pastor’s daughter encourage a tired, older, poorer Germany to care enough about the European project to drive it on as before? The omens are not good.

“Germany does not want to lead the EU any longer and doesn’t see itself as Europe’s architect and conductor but as its victim,” said Dr Ulrike Guérot, Berlin head of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “In an ideal world, Germany would love to be a big Switzerland in the middle of Europe: economically interconnected in all directions, but politically self-sufficient and unaccountable.”

She wasn’t the only one who picked up on a harder language emerging from Berlin this year. In a think tank paper called Why Germany Fell Out of Love with Europe, author Wolfgang Proissl described Germany as an increasingly reluctant EU partner.

EU scepticism is widespread across nearly all political parties in the background, he said, though it is only a matter of time before it enters the mainstream.

Dr Merkel is making matters worse, he says, as a pragmatist who is lacking an overall vision for Europe and has so far been unable to form strategic goals.

“When it comes to economic policy questions, all eyes are on Germany and Angela Merkel,” he told IP-Global journal. “In Brussels people often told me they were surprised by and disappointed in Germany’s reluctance to take on the leadership role.” The irony of Dr Merkel’s situation is that, while the rest of Europe has criticised her for being too tough, particularly towards aiding Greece and Ireland, German voters perceive her as too soft.

Each of the euro zone agreements reached in 2010 was perceived in Germany as a defeat for the national interest. Broadsheets and tabloids alike complain that the EU has become a shake-down for German taxpayers and urgently needs new rules.

Merkel-era Germany has changed the rules, and the rule-makers. Walk Berlin’s corridors of power and you will find no shortage of forty-something economists and MBA graduates who use snappy market language to explain why the German model, including German reform medicine, is the best cure-all for Europe.

Harder to find, and increasingly squeezed out of policy-making, are old-school German officials with a love for history and an knack of framing EU integration in terms of cohesion.

This dwindling ability to explain the bigger picture has seen even Germans drifting away from the European project. More worryingly, says Prof Oberreuter, “Among the German elites the attractiveness of the European idea is definitely on the decline.” For instance, the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine’s verdict on eurobonds was the populist headline: “Germany supposed to pay more”.

Analyst Wolfgang Proissl blames the German leader for failing to counter this scepticism.

“Merkel has failed over the past five years, and more crucially during the crisis, to explain to Germans why European integration as a whole, and the euro in particular, is not an altruistic project but was, and continues to be, in the best understood interests of Germany and its economy,” he told IP-Global.

Five years ago Germany was plagued by self-doubt and recession; the economic boom has revived a sense of invincibility. While the rest of the EU sees this as an indication of how Germany benefits from the euro, at home Germans see themselves as victims of the shared currency. The EU and the euro zone are increasingly perceived as an expensive albatross rather than, through the common market, a cornerstone of the country’s economic success.

In Chancellor Merkel’s defence, there is little European understanding that she is facing a run of state elections this year, and a series of losses there would bring the curtain down on her party leadership. An increasingly EU-critical constitutional court, next May, will hear arguments that Berlin broke the law by bailing out Greece and Ireland.

Much of the German leader’s tough rhetoric has been for domestic consumption, framing the crisis as a chance to right the wrong of agreeing to a joint currency without joint economic and fiscal policy.

Its price for playing along with further crisis measures is two-fold: a new rule-based euro zone and austerity measures in debt-ridden countries similar to Germany’s own recent reforms.

Dr Merkel is not Konrad Adenauer, nor is she Helmut Kohl. Her relationship with the EU, like that of Germans today, is a far more sombre affair. Yet she has yet to find a new narrative to communicate this, a new language that rings true with today’s German voters. If she loses them, it’s Europe’s loss.