The Marathon Run of Merkel
Dragomir Ivanov, 5 December 2011
The proverbial verse “Thinking of Germany at night/Just puts all thought of sleep to flight” belongs to the classic of German Romanticism Heinrich Heine. Yet, Germany that Heine mourns in 1843 is quite different from today’s Germany. But still the Federal Republic provides enough reasons for insomnia. And while the Bürgers ponder over their flattening pockets, the rest of the Europeans are twice as much concerned about the strange German behaviour in the middle of the euro crisis.
From Rome to London and from Lisbon to Athens the newspapers are thoroughly quoting a story from Angela Merkel’s childhood, that she herself told 11 years ago: “During the sport classes at school I needed 45 minutes to plunge from the 3-meter plunging-board into the pool. I jumped in the very last minute just as the bell rang the end of the class. I am brave at the decisive moment. But I need considerable time for preparation and I try to think over the situation as best as possible. I am not spontaneously brave.”
The school story speaks volumes about the current stubborn indecisiveness of the Chancellor - just as everybody expects from her more responsibility rather than the comfortable hiding behind the other members of the euro area. Indeed, at first glance, Merkel looks stubborn – she does not agree with the issuing of Eurobonds and with the widening of the competences of the European Central Bank (ECB).
A battle with no end in sight
Unlike her French partner Nicolas Sarkozy, in her programme speech in the Bundestag on Friday Merkel chose the dry comparison with the Marathon run to explain her behaviour. She crushed the hopes of those (sick) optimists who believed that the salvation of the euro is near. “The chances lie not with the one who is the fastest at the start but with the one who knows what to watch out during the entire run.” With these words Merkel announced a long and sweaty battle whose final round is still out of sight.
For her, it is important to restore the trust of the financial markets in the eurozone by turning Europe into a fiscal union of stability. The instruments proposed by the Chancellor are:
- final and uncompromising criteria for stability, a new European “debt brake”. Merkel wants to impose obligatory limits and “no space for political manoeuvring”;
- strict control of the budgetary discipline – by the European Commission;
- automatic sanctions and the right to interfere for the European Commission with the national budgets if the stability criteria are violated;
- bringing the violator-countries before the EU Court in Luxembourg.
On the two controversial issues – the ECB and the eurobonds - Merkel did not concede, although some observers noted certain signs of flexibility. The Chancellor underlined once again ECB’s independence and its main task to guarantee the stability of the monetary rates. According to Spiegel Online this does not mean that Merkel is against the buying-out of bonds from endangered countries if the situation requests so. The question is to refute the impression that this decision is taken as a result of political pressure. Even more that Paris is already openly lobbying for putting an end to the “ECB dogma”.
There will probably be an agreement about the eurobonds – Germany will recede in exchange of an agreement for amendment of the founding treaties. In the Bundestag Merkel yet assured that she would not enter such a deal. In her party, however, there are other voices. “For eurobonds to be issued we need iron-strong and unshakable deficit procedures. Only after all our demands for budgetary discipline and control are cemented by binding treaties, we can talk about eurobonds”, sources from the Christian Democratic Union are quoted as saying for Spiegel Online.
There will certainly be a tough battle for amendment of the EU treaties. The most controversial is the issue how to proceed. Is it necessary to call again an EU Convention or the changes can be introduced by an express procedure as the German government suggests? In Merkel’s surrounding yet another scenario is being studied: if the opposition against treaty changes continues to grow, shall new treaties be drafted for the eurozone that will be open for other countries to join – like Poland.
In Germany, too, a huge resistance is taking shape. Merkel’s coalition partner – the Free Democrats – categorically reject the eurobonds. Against them is also the leader of the brotherly Christian Social Union (CSU) and Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehoffer. It is said that unofficially he has even complained in front of his close collaborators that in the battle against the crisis Merkel is forced to make concessions that contradict the CSU principles.
The opposition directly questioned the marathon abilities of Angela Merkel. Following the Chancellor’s speech, the chair of the Greens fraction Jurgen Tritin ironically noted that Merkel’s marathon run has not yet began. “She still considers whether to get her runners out of the wardrobe”, said the former minister of environment.
Angela Merkel’s speech has yet a clear meaning: whoever does not agree with Berlin’s tactic will be left in the middle of the road. And those who can endure shall squeeze – together with Germany and France – to the goal. Merkel says that everyone is invited to join and that no one wants division - she the least of all - and therefore she will do anything to prevent it.
However, there is still a question pending about the German responsibility and the perception of it. For years now, already since Helmut Kohl’s era, Europe was accustomed to a Germany that is always ready to solve conflicts - by reaching to its pocket. It seems now that Berlin has changed the principle of the financial support – first you do the cuts, then we do the check and only then we save you.
This role is unusual not only for Europe but for the Germany itself. Against this background it is understandable that many Germans wish Berlin to take the lead in EU and not to consider so much the demands of the other Member States.
Of course, not everyone in Germany shares the same opinion. At least, because it stops short before telling the whole truth – that the German economy, too, is responsible for the Euro area’s drama. Germany alone can not drag the European cart out of the swamp. However,it should not sink in what Siegmund Freud called Realitätsverlust (loss of sense for reality) – a symptom that lies in the basis of the neurosis and the psychosis.