Merkel's Germany is becoming Merkel's Europe

Angela Merkel has a misunderstood vision for Europe. And it will surprise those who think her new approach to the union is only temporary crisis relief.

When pundits analyse Angela Merkel’s political success, they tend to fall back on a few well-worn ideas. The German chancellor is said to be a cautious pragmatist, a scientist who proceeds through trial-and-error, a reassuring mother-figure, a natural politician with an instinctive rapport with voters. All these things are true. But they miss out one vital element. Merkel is also a political visionary. In the midst of a sometimes terrifying currency crisis, she has redefined Germany’s relationship with the EU – on a new and more sustainable basis.

Merkel is not recognised as a political visionary, partly because her style is so low-key. She does not attempt the grandiose rhetoric of a President Barack Obama. Moreover, the guardians of the European flame, in Berlin and Brussels, have quite specific ideas of what a “vision” for Europe should look like. The German politicians who have been granted admission to the unofficial pantheon of European visionaries are men such as Joschka Fischer, the former foreign minister, and Helmut Kohl, a former chancellor and Merkel’s one-time mentor. The Kohls and the Fischers argued that Germany could only transcend the twisted nationalism of the past by embracing a united, post-national Europe.

Merkel has developed a different vision for the EU – and of Germany’s place within it. The chancellor has recognised that there is such a thing as a German national interest and made it clear that she intends to defend it.

Her key insight is that protecting the interests of German taxpayers is not opposed to the struggle to keep the European single currency alive – it is a crucial part of the task. If German voters ever turned against the single currency, the entire project would sink.

The potential for a German backlash during the euro crisis has always been there. The various rescue funds for southern Europe have involved Germany pledging – in loans and guarantees – the equivalent of an entire year’s federal budget. Merkel has also had to endorse heterodox-sounding policies from the European Central Bank, against the opposition of Germany’s own Bundesbank. To persuade Germans to endorse these steps, it was crucial that the chancellor come across as someone determined to defend her taxpayers every step of the way. It is a measure of her success that the anti-euro Alternative for Germany party polled less than 5 per cent in this weekend’s elections – a paltry figure compared with the double-digit scores for similar parties in Finland and the Netherlands.

The old-style European visionaries hope that – now the chancellor has notched up her third electoral victory – their ultimate dream of a United States of Europe can now be advanced. Many economists argue that the eurozone can only ultimately be stabilised if Merkel changes course – and moves towards a real banking union and, eventually, a “transfer union”, with a much larger central budget.

Both groups are likely to be disappointed. What they have failed to realise is that the approach Merkel has pursued during the euro crisis is not just a temporary expedient for an emergency but a thought-through and principled approach to Europe.

Talk to the chancellor’s advisers and it is clear that they have no intention of buckling to their eurozone partners’ more ambitious (and expensive) schemes. Discussion of a pan-European social security system is greeted with a terse “no way”. Suggestions that current plans for a banking union are not ambitious enough are waved away as an indirect attempt to get Germany to subsidise failing banks elsewhere in Europe.

As for the idea of eurozone bonds – underwritten by all EU taxpayers in common – one Merkel adviser gently satirises the idea by pointing out that there is nothing to stop France and Italy making a start, by issuing bonds together. When I suggested to another senior German diplomat that the Merkel approach to Europe – with its emphasis on protecting taxpayers and its suspicion of the European Commission – was “rather British”, I was greeted with a laugh, and the response: “Is that so bad?”

In reality, Germany’s approach to Europe is never going to be the same as that of Britain for a couple of very good reasons. First, the Germans are in the euro and the British are not, and so the two countries are starting from very different positions. Second, the idea of “political union” in Europe still evokes warm feelings in Germany, at least in the abstract. It is just that, these days, the Germans are much more inclined to read the small print than to make the grand gesture.

Merkel’s aversion to the grand gesture has also extended to her attitude to the world beyond Europe. The chancellor was lambasted in the US and UK when, in 2011, Germany abstained on the UN vote authorising the use of force in Libya. But, on Syria, the British and American legislatures have reflected national war-weariness and taken a rather German attitude to foreign military interventions.

Over the Middle East, as with Europe, Merkel has based her political approach on a genuine respect for the instincts of ordinary citizens. As this weekend’s elections showed, it seems to be working.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

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