Yesterday, Ian Birrell wrote about that great survivor of international politics, Angela Merkel. Her durability is indeed remarkable. In her time at the top so far, her opposite numbers have included three Americans, three Canadians, four Brits, four Frenchmen, six Italians and seven Japanese. She is a fixed point in a changing world – and, as such, is representative of how many view Germany itself.
It’s a point made by Anne Applebaum in an opinion piece for Spiegel:
“Some even speak of Germany as the West’s new leader. As Donald Trump’s America turns inward, possibly abandoning its free trade agenda and its longstanding commitment to democracy, Germany seems like a possible replacement. A poll taken in 2013 showed Germany to be the most admired country in the world… Germany’s public commitment to environmentalism, multilateralism and human rights give Germany moral standing; Germany’s industrial strength and export clout have given Germany economic power as well.”
Germany is presented as a model of stability and responsibility; a contrast to the unreliable Anglo-Saxons, the spendthrift Latins and the unruly East Europeans. If the Germans are seen to have a fault, it is that they are too self-effacing:
“Trump may be an aberration, but he does reflect a very real American exhaustion, and real American doubt about the worth of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Germans should have a plan to deal with threats in America’s absence. Right now, you don’t.
“At the very least Germany, by itself, lacks the military power and therefore the foreign policy clout to keep Europe safe from future Russian aggression; to help bring peace – and thus an end to the refugee crisis – to the Middle East; to do anything about the reconstruction of Libya except talk about it. Germans once confronted the problem of unification, and they spent time and resources on solving it. But when it comes to problems in the wider region, Germany has been absent.
“Instead, Germans sometimes seem determined to pretend they don’t exist.”
But I wonder if Germany is quite as the Germanophiles would see it. Is it, for instance, the force for stability its cracked up to be? For instance, one could point to the country’s massive trade surplus as a profoundly destabilising force – across Europe and beyond.
If this imbalance were a simple function of Germany’s famed industrial efficiency, then the blame would lie with backwardness of other nations. But the country’s exporting edge is also maintained by that colossal exchange rate fix otherwise known as the Eurozone and buttressed by the mercantilist props of the EU Customs Union. It also helps that Germany’s export infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe is massively subsidised by the UK and other net contributors to the EU’s regional development budget. As an added bonus, the Americans pay for the military defence of those export markets, along with that of Germany itself.
Moreover, the Eurozone has facilitated massive borrowing on the part of the weaker EU economies, part of which has been used to purchase German exports. When that little arrangement came to grief in the Eurozone crisis, the banks – including German institutions – were cushioned, while the poor Greeks paid the full price. Invited to take some financial responsibility for the situation, the German electorate made their reluctance clear.
Germany has also played a destabilising role in the refugee crisis. There is of course nothing irresponsible about helping Syrians fleeing from a war zone. But there are good ways and bad ways of doing so. A good way would be to take people in an orderly fashion from over-flowing refugee camps in the Middle East. That way you can make assessments on the basis of greatest need, take appropriate security precautions and transport vulnerable people safely to their new homes. A bad way would be to suddenly announce that your borders are open to anyone making a perilous journey across other countries’ territory, to the profit of criminal people smugglers. To make a bad choice worse, you could then change your mind, close your borders and leave refugees stranded with your much poorer neighbours.
Guess which option Angela Merkel went for?
As for Germany’s fabled contribution to the fight against climate change, its energiewende is a great example of how not to transition to a low carbon economy. In particular, there was the country’s absurd over-reaction to the Fukushima disaster. Rather than merely opting not to replace their existing nuclear power stations at the end of their working lives, the German government decided to shut them down prematurely at great expense; furthermore, replacing the lost generating capacity with coal – setting a truly terrible example to less advanced nations. And let’s not forget another German eco-nightmare, the VW emissions scandal (which Harriet Maltby writes about here).
Finally, we come to Brexit, where Angela Merkel’s intransigence humiliated David Cameron, thereby creating the conditions for a leave victory in the in/out referendum. If re-elected, we’ll see if she decides to restore sanity to the Brexit negotiations or whether she endorses the push to humiliate Britain for a second time.
Indeed, the negotiations are a moment of truth for the Germans as well as the British. The outcome will show whether Germany is ready to lead – or whether it will continue in its policy of screwing up – and screwing over – the rest of Europe.