Merkel's Push for Consensus Crisis Creates a New German Politics

The effects of the worldwide economic crisis are leading to a new globalization in politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking unity in Europe to deal with the financial crisis, while at home consensus and cooperation are the new watchwords. Is it the beginning of a new politics?

It seems so unreal. How could German Chancellor Angela Merkel be giving a speech about culture in the heart of Berlin as if nothing had happened? How could the city outside still be humming along as if there were no financial crisis?

It should be impossible. And yet that was exactly what happened last Tuesday at Berlin's Martin Gropius museum. Merkel did mention the financial crisis briefly during her speech on culture, but one could be forgiven for thinking that there is no financial crisis at all. Life in Germany seems to be continuing as if nothing had happened. In fact, at times it seems as if things are improving. Germans are happily consuming away, unemployment has dropped below three million and the Christmas markets will soon be open for business.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London on Friday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London on Friday.

These are days marked by a lack of simultaneity and a lack of reality. Some are still dancing while others have already lost their money. The country continues to tick along in a mood of dignified normalcy, and yet the great meltdown, the final collapse of the banking system is lurking around the corner. The money is flowing, and yet there is the threat of recession and widespread unemployment.

Rarely has the mood in Germany been so strange. It is as if Germans were living in two worlds, a real world in the here and now, and an imaginary world in an unpleasant tomorrow. The country, like the rest of the world, is in transit, and no one knows where the journey is headed.

But there are areas -- politics, for example -- in which the change took place immediately and in which a new era is already underway. Merkel has already completed her transformation -- from hapless reformist to crisis manager. And politics as a whole is looking completely different in the fall of 2008 than it did in the summer of 2008. Today's politics are of a unique time, a time of unreality. But when we examine things closely, it is hard not wish for these politics to become the norm.

A logical and obvious consequence of the crisis is the globalization of politics, which is finally following in the footsteps of the economy. A kind of global government is taking shape, and although it is still hidden from view, it is already in full operation, during every hour of every day. A similar attempt at worldwide global government was made last year, when the shocking realization of the effects of climate change could have united the world. But it did not, partly because the Western nations paid insufficient attention the rest of the world in forging their plans. At their summit in Heiligendamm, Germany in 2007, the leaders of the G-8 industrialized nations dominated the proceedings while granting their counterparts from the emerging economies all of an hour of their time at a joint luncheon -- a gesture that was not well received.

But this time things are being done differently. Merkel is currently traveling around the European Union, seeking a shared concept for a new global financial order. At the same time, she is discussing everything with the Indians and the Chinese. They are being asked to contribute more heavily to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which ought to give them more of a say in the organization. This would make the IMF cease to be an instrument of the West, signaling the West's abdication as the world's supreme rulers. The unbridled financial sector, which plunged the globe into crisis, was an invention of the West.

For Germany, this means that it can only prevail against the new major players, with which the Germans are not tied through shared values, within the EU. This is why global policy for German politicians must, most of all, be integration policy in Europe. In addition, the German elites must acquire global competency.

A Step Toward Normalization

Officials at the Chancellery in Berlin recently came up with a list of Germans capable of understanding the financial crisis and helping to develop a solution. The list amounted to less than 10 people. This deficit is a consequence of German restraint. The French are better at placing their people in international institutions. Germany, however, has granted itself the luxury of remaining provincial, and has done well for itself as a result, but this period of cultivating the idyllic is coming to an end.

This is especially true of the politicians themselves. If we add up the number of people in Germany that can be trusted to discuss complex issues in daily telephone conferences with the Bushs, Sarkozys, Wens, Singhs and Medvedevs of this world, we are hardly likely to hit upon more than five. Merkel is one of them, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier can work his way into the role. Kurt Beck, the former leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), already seems like a man from a different era.

This shift means that the political world will have to modify its recruitment parameters from an emphasis on local skills to urbaneness. Until now, the key to a political career was staying power, not mobility. The ability to secure and hold on to power was the principal competency. But the kind of person who can prevail in a world crisis is someone with clever engineering abilities and high-level negotiating skills.

For Germany, the search for a global financial regime is the last step toward normalization. Until now, global crises were primarily armed conflicts, in which Germany took on a special role to reflect its military's former role in the murderous Nazi regime. German politics was heavily influenced by the country's dark past.

In the world financial crisis, the present and the future are paramount. Germany cannot claim any special role, as it does in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This doesn't mean that the country can somehow shed its past. In between hours of working on crisis policy, Merkel is writing a speech to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom of Nov. 9, 1938, a speech that is important to her. Nevertheless, politics no longer revolves around the past.

Well, not quite. The past is still important, but it has changed. There is now a good German past too. When Merkel visited British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London last Thursday it seemed, for the first time, that she was representing a country with both a reasonably good and a bad past, and that the Germans did not have to be the contrite ones this time.

Great Britain represents the Anglo-Saxon model of unbridled capitalism, while Germany stands for the social market economy, with all of its rules and regulations. It isn't as if Merkel and Brown had somehow broadcast this at their press conference. In fact, they were so resolutely ebullient that it seemed as they were planning to do away with the North Sea and combine the two countries. But it was also clear that the two leaders have changes to make in their countries, many, in Brown's case, and not quite as many, in Merkel's.

This is not grounds for triumph, but a mandate for Germany to self-confidently campaign on behalf of its social model, a model that includes taking less risks. And it should, now that the crisis has shown that the risks that some take end up putting everyone else at risk.

The most encouraging change in German politics is a growing sense of calm. Or does anyone miss the politicians hurling insults at one another? Does anyone miss the cursing, the raised voices and the barbs in parliament? Does anyone miss the word "conflict" appearing daily in newspaper headlines?

No one misses any of this. But it was ordinary political life. Conflicts still exist today, as they should in a democracy, but the struggle itself has become secondary. Cooperation is the name of the game these days. Even Oskar Lafontaine, now the chairman of the Left Party, occasionally sounds as if he were still a finance minister with far-reaching responsibilities.

It seems that politics in Germany is currently taking place under ideal conditions. As paradoxical as it seems, the crisis has had a calming effect. During normal times, politics is, in large part, nothing but a semi-serious war of words, one in which many of the actors opt for the hysterical approach. Politicians hurl words at each other to create a charged atmosphere. Journalists turn minor sentences into major headlines.

In the crisis, most participants modify their behavior. This doesn't mean that they are suddenly coming up with only the best of all solutions. Many experts say that the stimulus program the German government has just concocted is too meager. But the participants become aware that they also have a responsibility to promote the common good. In the past, they have been more focused on promoting themselves or their party. This explains the existence of an open or clandestine desire to see politicians like Merkel and Steinmeier fail. Failure meant that the opposing party could score points, and failure meant headlines and news stories.

The Political Process Streamlined

But in the crisis, almost everyone comes together behind a common desire to succeed. The situation has become too serious to be allowed to go wrong. Of course, the rivalry between Merkel and Steinmeier is still there, but it is no longer front and center. The politicians are behaving in a more constructive way, while journalists are reporting and commenting in a generally more objective manner.

It should stay that way. In light of the world's problems, significant conflict over issues like subsidies for commuters seems more ridiculous than anything else. But the consequence is that we can expect more from the results of politics. Although Merkel and Finance Minister Steinbrück were under great pressure when they assembled the bailout package for the banks, their work was based on a general desire for their efforts to succeed.

The bailout package reveals how the participants go about shaping their decisions. So far, they have demonstrated an early tendency to favor the smaller solution, with little safeguarding, little Europization, little in the way of constraints, and yet doubts and corrections. What will really count in the end, however, is whether this approach was capable of averting a truly serious crisis.

Merkel also benefits from a streamlining of the political process. The bailout package was pushed through the banks in one week. Anything that would normally be considered a hindrance, as with Agenda 2010, for example, was irrelevant this time: federalism, excessive parliamentarianism and lobbyism. It is the hour of the executive. Merkel and Steinbrück are almost unchallenged as the dominant shapers of German policy.

It is clear that this can work, and that the government is capable of acting in a crisis situation. This realization makes us wonder why politics cannot be like this more often. If politics is gradually shifting into the global arena, then consulting regional politicians like the mayor of Bremen or the governor of the state of Saarland seems increasingly irrelevant. A more streamlined process will also be desirable after the crisis comes to an end.

But there is also an inherent risk to the new amicability: It promotes the politics of the backroom. Merkel and Steinbrück are currently setting the course for Germany in countless meetings and telephone conversations with the world's leading politicians. The parliament is almost incapable of intervening, while its members are condemned to being spectators or yes-men to avoid jeopardizing the endeavor. Power is currently concentrated in the hands of the very few.

The public is also being kept largely out of the loop, because talks between heads of state are almost always subject to extreme confidentiality. Germany currently has something akin to a secret chancellorship. This is tolerable for a period of time, but not in the long term.

Merkel is already having trouble finding forceful language to talk about the crisis. German citizens have yet to hear her give a good, never mind a great speech on the subject. But she will eventually be forced to explain to the public and, most of all, the parliament what she has and has not done. Just because politicians are now expending so much effort monitoring the financial world, we should not neglect to keep an eye them.

The last aspect of this new era in politics is called immersion. There is a great deal at stake today, and it would be nice to see this reflected in the German political debate. The central concept of democracy and the market economy is currently under scrutiny: freedom. Once again, we have seen that man has a tendency to take advantage of his freedoms to the point of self-destruction. This is why concepts that compete directly with freedom are gaining in popularity: enforcement, control.

Merkel is currently working on controls for the financial industry. At the same time, she is considering how best to defend the concept of freedom, because it is the basis of our social order and cannot simply be curtailed at will -- otherwise the social order changes. The overriding question, therefore, is this: How will freedom and control be doled out in the future?

It would be exciting to see all the parties debate this question and come up with intelligent alternatives, which could serve as a good basis for deciding which party to vote for in 2009. Hopefully in a new reality.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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