The World from Berlin Unpopular Germany Faces 'Unpleasant' Years Ahead

Ahead of a crucial EU summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been attacked from all sides. While many in the European Union are berating Berlin for its seeming lack of solidarity, opposition leaders at home are accusing her of dithering and populism. German commentators warn of a rough road ahead.

Chancellor Merkel in the Bundestag on Wednesday.

Chancellor Merkel in the Bundestag on Wednesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel heads to the European Union summit on Thursday and Friday knowing that her country's popularity in the rest of the EU is at its lowest ebb in decades. Berlin's opposition to a number of proposals for dealing with the euro crisis, from Eurobonds to an increase in the euro zone's bailout fund, has left many other member states questioning Germany's solidarity with its struggling neighbors.

Berlin is seen as insisting on economic prudence and savings measures at a time when it is enjoying the benefits of an export boom while its indebted EU partners struggle to deal with spiralling debt crises. And some see Merkel's insistence on a permanent crisis mechanism, which will be discussed at the summit, as having precipitated the need for the recent Irish bailout.

Yet Merkel is struggling to find a balance between meeting Germany's commitments to its European partners and not antagonizing taxpayers at home who are loath to pay for what they see as the more profligate ways of some euro-zone states. Meanwhile she is also coming in for sharp criticism from the opposition at home over her handling of the crisis.

In a speech to the Bundestag on Wednesday, Merkel attempted to present herself as a good European on the eve of the summit. She declared that "nobody in Europe will be abandoned," adding that "Europe only succeeds if we work together." However opposition leaders lashed out at the chancellor, accusing her of dithering and lacking European solidarity.

Jürgen Trittin, one of the leaders of the Green's parliamentary group, said Merkel was regarded as a "Teutonic savings-monster" throughout the euro zone. He accused her of being disorientated and of pandering to the popular press. He also blasted Merkel for having "swept a sensible idea off the table" when she rejected the Eurobonds suggestion.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, parliamentary leader of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), attacked Merkel for not comprehending the seriousness of the crisis. Steinmeier, who had been foreign minister and deputy chancellor in the previous "grand coalition" between the SPD and Merkel's Christian Democrats, reiterated the points he made Wednesday in an opinion piece he wrote for the Financial Times with former SPD Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück. In the op-ed, the politicians demanded a "more radical, targeted effort to end the current uncertainty" and they called for a partial restructuring of the debts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, guarantees for the bonds of stable countries, and the limited introduction of pan-European bonds.

The German press on Thursday take another look at the euro crisis and the uncomfortable position that Germany now finds itself in.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"German chancellors always have to play a double role in Europe. They have to represent German interests while at the same time not appearing as selfish. …. Since the outbreak of the euro crisis, Angela Merkel has not succeeded in this balancing act. Her speech to the Bundestag on Wednesday showed this all too clearly."

"Certainly she and other speakers from her coalition made an effort to look like good, staunch Europeans, showing solidarity and friendship. Nevertheless, their arguments were all based strongly on their positions as Germans. That is why the chancellor's speech will do little to change the fact that, in the eyes of many European countries, the Germans have seldom before been so stubborn."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"In stormy times, the question of whether Germany is losing popularity within the EU cannot be the focus of attention. The most important thing is to prevent the once glowing euro from being sold off cheaply. After all, the price that all of us in Europe will pay -- and not just the Germans! -- if the euro zone degenerated into a debt union, would be far higher than the rescue funds handed out up until now."

"That is why it is worth fighting for a culture of stability in Europe. That is uncomfortable. Economic common sense doesn't warm the heart like great speeches about European solidarity. Yet what is right on a national level is also right for the EU: Politicians have to agree to a tight corset of rules, which reduces their urges to spend far too much. Those who decry this stability-orientated stance as German selfishness have not understood that long-term prosperity cannot be financed on the nod but must be earned."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Instead of introducing Eurobonds, which would take away from investors the chance to differentiate between good and less good borrowers, the disciplined functioning of the market must be maintained. In order to win back the trust of investors in the long term, decisive reforms in the member states and a consistent European framework are required."

"In particular, the crisis-hit countries face challenges. The first measures and reforms are a cause for hope. The European rescue fund and its long-term successor will give these economies enough time to sort out their finances through consolidation and structural reforms. That is naturally not a question of weeks or months. The euro zone is facing tough years ahead. In the crisis-hit countries, it will require great determination from politicians and a willingness to make sacrifices on the part of the citizens. And this will also be an unpleasant period for Germany, because it will have to deal with the unjustified accusation that it lacks solidarity. Solidarity, if correctly understood, also means insisting that the conditions for the functioning of a currency union that has centralized money but decentralized fiscal policies should finally be understood everywhere and achieved in the long term."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Apart from the French president, (Merkel) has few partners who are standing by her side in the long term. And even Sarkozy's demand -- that the member states' financial, budget and economic polices be harmonized -- is more like a precursor to Eurobonds rather than a sustainable defense against them."

"That is why it is right to insist that there should be a unanimous agreement in the euro zone over the implementation of the crisis mechanism. Germany has a veto like every other country -- and yet, it would still be isolated if one day it was the only one to say no. Merkel knows the danger. That is why in her speech she pointed to all the European policy pledges the government has made."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"In the middle of the euro crisis, it would be helpful if the most important governments and the European Central Bank (ECB) could quietly and professionally work together. But unfortunately that is not the case."

"ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet declares he wants to see an expansion of the rescue fund for weaker euro-zone states. The German government almost reflexively rejects this. That is because it faces a growing count-me-out opposition, which rejects guarantees that are at the cost of the German taxpayers…"

"This dispute can only increase uncertainty. Is it really so bad that the ECB would ask for more guarantees? Are there no more committed Europeans in Berlin?"

"The background to this discord is a dispute between the ECB and the governments, which has been perceptible since the Ireland crisis began. This is about the burning question of who is responsible for saving the world. The central bankers are tired of having to step in repeatedly and buy up the bonds of troubled states because (those states) can't get their finances in order. They want the politicians to take responsibility for the public finances so that the central bank can concentrate on its core responsibility -- maintaining the value of the currency."

-- Siobhán Dowling


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