Germany’s EU role plays second fiddle to political shadow boxing

Angela Merkel’s short speeches on Europe are unfocused and lack substance

Germany’s European election campaign has involved lots of political shadow boxing between its grand coalition partners rather than serious debate from them about Berlin’s role in the post-crisis EU order.

Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is likely to take around a third of Germany's 96 European parliament seats, with a quarter for the party's traditional rival but current coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Merkel's short campaign speeches on Europe are the rhetorical equivalent of Marlene Dietrich's vaseline on the camera lens: unfocused but flattering to its subject.

In the pretty Saxon town of Görlitz, Merkel's speech boils down to three points: dialogue with Russia is the best way to avoid war, a united EU is the best guarantor of peace in Europe and, finally, pooled EU sovereign debt over my cold, dead body.


Mostly, though, she produces carefully-calibrated platitudes. Sunday’s European election, they imply, is less about competing political visions for the EU than a referendum on Merkel as guarantor for continued German freedom, peace and prosperity in Europe.

“In your own family history you’ll see there were generations that had other problems to us,” she said. “Your vote on Sunday contributes to Europe continuing to do well.”

After 20 minutes her speech is over and the audience, many unsure of what they have just witnessed, drifts away.

“If her strategy was to say nothing, she succeeded,” said Sigun Fulda, an early retiree originally from Hamburg.

It's a different story three hours to the north on Berlin's Alexanderplatz. A rally of the SPD crackles with tension, besieged by protest groups of both hard left and right persuasion. Ukraine crisis Some are against TTIP, the proposed EU-US free trade deal; another well-organised group attacks the SPD's robust approach to Russia in the Ukraine crisis.

SPD foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered a furious address at the protesters. Their “warmonger” jeers show, he bellowed, “that they still haven’t understood Europe”.

“What would have become of our peace if we didn’t have solidarity among EU member states?” he added.

"The ghost of the cold war we believed was dead has returned. For young people, for whom Europe is Erasmus and Easyjet, this crisis shows you have to fight for peace very day."

Socialist lead candidate Martin Schulz reiterates familiar campaign promises: taxes on multinational companies where they earn their profits; a US trade deal only if it preserves European food safety; data protection and social standards.

As new European Commission president, the German-born politician vows to act as advocate of the 87 per cent of Europeans he says live on less than €2,000 a month.

“For me the euro crisis will only be over when we take care of them,” he says, earning only polite applause from the home crowd.

Berlin man Paul Garus (20) is unimpressed, suggesting the Schulz speech was deliberately vague to not expose economic contradictions in the German SPD's euro crisis strategy.

"They call for investment here at home but demand budgetary savings elsewhere in Europe. But our prosperity in Germany depends on our neighbours having enough money to buy our goods. It makes no sense."

While Schulz has been a highly visible Socialist candidate in Germany, the conservative lead candidate Jean-Claude Juncker is a phantom.

That has prompted speculation that Merkel, no fan of the lead-candidate idea , will happily ditch the whole idea – and Mr Juncker – next week and agree compromise candidates for the top EU jobs. Green lead candidate Ska Keller has focused on attacking the TTIP deal and European arms exports to Russia, while the liberal Free Democratic Party, kicked out of power and the Bundestag last September, hopes Sunday's vote is the beginning of the end of its political limbo.

Most interesting in the campaign was what wasn't said. As in last September's federal election, Merkel again ignored the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany's new Eurosceptic party. Crisis bailouts On course to poll about 6 per cent on Sunday, the AfD argues that crisis bailouts broke EU rules and endanger the euro's future. Its rallies are emotive affairs with police guards for its leaders.

Sunday's EU vote could have domestic consequences for Merkel. If her ignore-the-AfD strategy is a flop she will face pressure to change tack to tackle its euro-critical arguments before, from its new perch in the European Parliament, the party cannibalises even more of the CDU's right-wing conservative voter base.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin