A Cold Heart for Europe: Merkel's Dispassionate Approach to the Euro Crisis
Angela Merkel has more power in Europe than any of her postwar predecessors. Yet there is little passion in her relationship with the EU, with the chancellor preferring instead a strategy that can only be described as pedagogical imperialism. She sees the bloc primarily in terms of euros and cents -- and worries that it is rapidly losing relevance.
The crisis has its comical sides, of course. Take, for example, the story with the submarine. Angela Merkel starts to giggle. It was lopsided. Suddenly she snorts with laughter, as tears run down her cheeks. She can't even talk anymore. Lopsided, she says, trying to pull herself together. But she can't. The chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany has succumbed to an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
The story Merkel is having so much trouble relating goes like this: The Greeks ordered a state-of-the-art, class 214 submarine from the Howaldtswerken-Deutsche Werft shipyard in the northern port city of Kiel. But when the vessel was ready, they refused to pay. The Greek military experts who had traveled to Kiel explained that the Papanikolis listed even in slight swells, and they declined to take delivery of the vessel.
The Germans tested, measured and checked the sub, but found nothing amiss. The boat's lopsidedness is apparently something only Greeks, up to their eyeballs in debt, can detect -- an anecdote that still sends the chancellor into fits of laughter years later.
Oh, those Greeks. Sometimes, when things get really bad, Merkel resorts to gallows humor. But it doesn't really help. The show must go on, and in the end, it all comes back to her, anyway.
For three years now, the euro crisis has been smoldering. It has brought down governments in Ireland and Spain, in Italy and Slovenia, and has led to countless summit meetings in Brussels, at which first a temporary and then a permanent bailout fund was established.
European leaders will meet in the Belgian capital once again this Thursday and Friday, at what is expected to be the year's most important summit. The agenda consists of nothing less than the political realignment of the euro zone and the question of whether members can agree to a European banking union to save the Continent's ailing banks. In the midst of it all, as always, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Fate of Europe in her Hands
All eyes in Europe are directed at Merkel. No other politician on the Continent arouses as many hopes -- or as much hatred -- as the German chancellor. When she visits Greece, protesters wearing Nazi uniforms march through the streets of Athens, and yet a word from Merkel can also mean saving a euro country from bankruptcy.
She currently holds the fate of Europe in her hands. If the euro is rescued, Merkel will get most of the credit, and if it falls apart, she will be forced to shoulder the blame. No other German chancellor has had as much power on the European continent as the current one. And yet, ironically enough, none of Merkel's predecessors were as dispassionate about the European Union as the woman currently governing from the Chancellery. Merkel is different.
Germany's first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, together with then French President Charles de Gaulle, established the foundation for the Franco-German friendship. Later, Chancellor Helmut Kohl would tear up whenever he mentioned the "House of Europe," and even his successor Gerhard Schröder, initially concerned that German money was being "frittered away" in Brussels, eventually became an ardent supporter of Europe.
National interests, of course, have always been part of European politics. After the war, Adenauer wanted to firmly anchor Germany in the West. For France, on the other hand, Europe was a means to keep its neighbor across the Rhine in check. But passion was always the fertilizer on which Europe thrived. And passion is exactly what Merkel lacks.
Her Shangri-La was not Paris or Rome, but America. The United States was the antithesis to the musty stuffiness of East Germany, and for her, Europe did not promise any deliverance. This attitude distinguished her from those members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union who came of age in the western part of Germany. They grew up with the belief that the rehabilitation of the Germans, and the recovery of Germany's national dignity and identity after the crimes of the Nazi era, could only be achieved through Europe.
For Merkel, Europe is no dream, vision or object of desire. She has since learned that it is part of the Christian Democratic etiquette to sugarcoat Europe with pathos, which is one of the reasons she traveled to Oslo on Monday for the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU. It was, however, little more than a show for the public. In the end Europe, for Merkel, is a question of prosperity, of euros and cents -- and not a matter of the heart.
A Brief Lecture
Which begs the question: Can this woman lead Europe out of crisis? Or is a dispassionate politician like Merkel precisely what Europe needs -- someone who lacks the unrealistic emotionalism that led the euro astray in the first place?
Close observation of Merkel this year, as she travels through Europe and around the world, reveals a relentlessly objective woman -- one who is primarily interested in key indicators like growth rates, demographic trends and debt levels. When Merkel is asked about the causes of the euro crisis, she likes to reply with a brief lecture on economics.
"Where are my beloved tables?" she asks, seated in a plane in the summer. Then she pulls out a stack of papers. On one side, they show the skyrocketing labor costs in Southern Europe. On the other side are the low interest rates that enabled countries like Greece, following the introduction of the common currency, to embark on such an unrestrained path to debt in the first place.
It isn't sentimentality that drove Merkel to make 400 billion ($520 billion) of German money available to help prop up the euro zone. This quickly becomes clear when she speaks. She treats the debt-ridden countries of Southern Europe like unruly children that have to be brought to their senses so that Germany isn't dragged into the abyss of the euro crisis along with them.
When she flew to Greece in October, she prepared by reading an interview with the Greek prime minister in the leading German business daily Handelsblatt. In it, Antonis Samaras said that he now makes himself available to his ministers on weekends, and that he also has time for face-to-face meetings. The message he was trying to convey is that the era of inefficiency is finally over. But one could also interpret the premier's words differently, namely as evidence of the long road ahead for Greece. How can a prime minister, after all, believe that having to work on the weekend is even worth mentioning?
For months, Merkel wavered over whether or not Greece should remain in the euro zone. As recently as summer, she couldn't decide whether to believe in the domino or the ballast theory, as she called the two alternatives. According to the first theory, a Greek bankruptcy could drag other threatened euro countries into the abyss. Proponents of the second theory, on the other hand, believe that Greece is the ballast that the euro zone has to jettison to recover.
It's difficult to say why Merkel eventually chose the domino theory. Perhaps it was partly the doing of Chinese fund managers who, during her visit to Beijing in the summer, bluntly described to her what they saw as the devastating consequences of ejecting Greece from the euro zone. If that happened, they said, China would no longer have any confidence in the euro and, as a result, would stop buying bonds issued by euro-zone member states.
Perhaps it was also the warnings coming from her counterparts in Europe. The Slovenian prime minister, for instance, told her that a Greek bankruptcy would result in a 5 percent shrinkage of his country's economy. That too made an impression on Merkel.
What don't tend to make an impression on Merkel are the protests against her. She is undoubtedly Europe's most-hated woman at the moment. When she traveled to Athens in October, her motorcade quickly swept through the empty streets of the Greek capital; it felt like the setting for one of those films that depicts a world devoid of human beings.
Visiting Lisbon in mid-November, she met with her Portuguese counterpart in a centuries-old fortress on the Atlantic coast, where police officers dressed in black and carrying submachine guns were posted along the battlements. A helicopter circled overhead, while frogmen in an assault boat kept watch over the sea approach.
The chancellor's motorcade had hardly left the airport before demonstrators greeted Merkel with Hitler salutes and extended middle fingers. In the summer, Time ran a cover story titled "Why everybody loves to hate Angela Merkel."
The chancellor was horrified at first over the amount of aversion she encountered, say her advisors. But now she sees things in a more pragmatic light. Her confidants say that the protests do sometimes lead Merkel to wonder if she is on the right track. She usually answers the question in the affirmative.
- Part 1: Merkel's Dispassionate Approach to the Euro Crisis
- Part 2: Disney World for Tourists from China
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