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A Fresh Start in Europe: Is a Milder Merkel in the Cards?

A Commentary by

Will a strengthened hand allow Chancellor Merkel escape her bad rep? Here, a wooden sculpture of her is burned in Valencia, Spain, in March 2013. Zoom
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Will a strengthened hand allow Chancellor Merkel escape her bad rep? Here, a wooden sculpture of her is burned in Valencia, Spain, in March 2013.

Angela Merkel's tough-nosed euro policies have divided the Continent and earned her a reputation for coldness. Now that the election has strengthened her hand and freed her of pesky partners, she has a chance to reshape her stance.

Any Greeks, Spaniards or Portuguese who saw images of the election-night party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) might have been terrified by what they saw. Here was the much-feared Merkel prancing about in celebration of her party's triumph; there was parliamentary floor leader Volker Kauder yelling "Days like these…" into the microphone as part of a single-along of a German pop hit. Yes, this was the same Kauder who had threatened during the last legislative period that German might now become the language of Europe. But will people soon also be singing and dancing in German, too?

In the wake of Merkel's impressive electoral victory, there is growing anxiety in the southern part of the euro zone. On Monday, the day after the election, the Greek daily Ta Nea ran the headline "Europe Is Becoming Merkel-Land" with a picture of Merkel wearing a crown and sitting on a throne. And the Rome daily La Repubblica now views Germany as "undoubtedly the hegemonic power of the Continent."

Such sentiments suggest that many fear Merkel will capitalize on the strength of her victory to dictate an even tougher course of belt-tightening in the rest of the European Union. But there is much to indicate that things might turn out differently. Indeed, in her third consecutive term in office, Merkel might pursue considerably bolder and more pro-integration euro policies than many observers expect her to. In any case, the new constellation of power in Germany -- one in which Merkel's conservatives will no longer have to appease their erstwhile junior coalition party, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- at least offers her a wealth of openings to do so.

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Photo Gallery: The German Election in Numbers
Power:

In reality, the significance of the election's results extends far beyond Germany's borders. By securing over 41 percent of the vote, a 7.7 percentage point increase over the CDU's 2009 results, Merkel will remain in place as the head of Europe's largest and most important country. Indeed, just holding on to power sets her apart from fellow European heads of government. Since the dawn of the economic crisis roughly three and a half years back, none of the heads of government of large euro-zone countries has survived an election. Whether it was Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Monti or Zapatero, they all had to vacate their offices. What's more, all of their successors have also run into trouble. But Merkel hasn't just survived an election; Sunday's vote has bolstered her strength and allowed her a moment of triumph.

Furthermore, the election also makes Merkel stronger than she ever has been in Europe. But that is still far from meaning that she will necessarily take that as an invitation to more aggressively pursue the policies she favors. On the contrary, the new constellation of power in Germany -- with some parties strengthened, some weakened, some booted out of parliament and new alliances on the horizon -- also gives the country a chance to behave as a "benevolent hegemon," as star investor George Soros has put it -- in other words, the only power to enhance while simultaneously helping Europe.

History:

The incentive for Merkel to pursue milder euro policies could be particularly large. It is highly likely that the next four years will mark her final term in office. And who would be thrilled about going down in history as the "Mean Lady of Europe"?

During her second term in office, between 2009 and now, Merkel played a significant role in creating fissures that have divided the Continent. Instead of taking advantage of the crisis to advance Europe's political and economic integration, from the very beginning, Merkel was constantly a divisive figure. She coldly informed crisis-stricken countries looking for help that each of them must kindly pay their own bills. There would be help, of course, but only in the form of loans and guarantees -- and only under strict conditions.

As a result, countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus came to be more dependent on their creditors. While many Germans view their European neighbors primarily as burdensome supplicants, the countries in crisis have had to suffer from years of recession and the effects of the tough austerity measures the German government has prescribed for them.

Politicians within the German government, such as Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble, her finance minister and fellow CDU member, have become hated figures in many European countries. Likewise, no demonstration has been complete without swastikas or SS uniforms. In June 2012, the British magazine New Statesman even ran a cover featuring Merkel as a Terminator-like figure and bearing the title "Europe's most dangerous leader."

Of course, that's not the kind of moniker anyone wants to retire with. This has already prompted Merkel to tweak her policies bit by bit. From the kind of rhetoric about blame and punishment that initially predominated when discussing countries such as Greece, Merkel has now moved to a stance that champions solidarity. Indeed, there is no more talk about kicking countries out of the euro zone or cutting off their access to bailout loans. In fact, the conditions tied to the loans have even been relaxed. And Finance Minister Schäuble has also prepped voters in the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), to accept another aid package for Greece. Given these facts, one can say that the changed stance of Merkel and her party was already heralded long ago.

Partners:

For the last four years, Merkel has been obliged to take the wishes of her junior coalition partner into consideration when formulating her euro policies. Whether it was aid for Greece or euro bailout funds, the greatest obstructions always came from the FDP. Party head Philipp Rösler was still publicly toying with the idea of evicting Greece from the euro zone long after Merkel had signalled a softening of her policy.

But now that the FDP has failed to secure even 5 percent of the vote, it will no longer have parliamentary representation -- and these problems will no longer exist. Regardless of whether Merkel rules with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) or the Greens, both parties support more European solidarity and integration -- and are opposed to the rhetoric of guilt and punishment that Merkel had earlier employed. Under such conditions, a new partner could even serve to help Merkel justify her own change of stance.

Danger from the Right:

The euroskeptics in the new Alternative for Germany (AfD) party almost landed some seats in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. In the end, it only fell short of the mark by a few tenths of a percent of the vote. Shouldn't Merkel take that as a clear signal that she should alter her polities and take more serious the anxieties that Germans feel about more European integration?

That is only partially correct. Granted, the AfD's good results are a warning shot for all parties. But that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone has to swing in line to back the course championed by the AfD. If so, it would mean that a mere 4.7 percent of the electorate was setting the course for an entire country.

If Merkel intends to not allow herself to be driven by such a minority, she will have to become better about explaining the euro crisis and everything she does to try to resolve it. She has to make it clear to German voters why it's worth it to fight for the EU and its shared currency -- and why they will also have to pitch in funds to make that happen. Indeed, neglecting to do so was the biggest mistake of her second term in office.

Merkel now has an opportunity to change her course once again. This could admittedly be difficult, especially given how the government and the tabloid media have nurtured negative sentiments toward the "bankrupt Greeks" and the "debt union," which themselves have become deeply seared into the collective consciousness of many Germans. And if Merkel wants to dislodge these prejudices, she is going to have to be much more courageous than she has been so far.

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1. optional
danm 09/24/2013
Reshape her stance? Why shouldn't she continue her prior path because that is the mandate given to her by the German voters.
2. Why should she change course?
Inglenda2 09/25/2013
As long as Germany continues to foot the bills for other countries, I do not think anybody else in Europe cares much about who is in charge.
3. Wait a minute
andrewpurdy 09/25/2013
Merkel's party may have gained seats, but the 3 leftist parties combined actually have a majority. This is because Merkel's former partners are completely out. If the leftist parties dislike each other too much to combine forces, Merkel could take this as a "win", but if everyone groups by ideology Merkel should be the minority leader. A third term for Merkel is NOT guaranteed.
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Graphic: How Germans voted



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