September 4, 2013 6:20 pm
It is an old truism that European issues do not determine elections in Germany. This year may be different. The drama in the eurozone during Angela Merkel’s past four years in power has put Germany in the role of reluctant saviour of the single currency. Ms Merkel’s policies have righted the monetary union’s keel, but strained the good will between Germany and its fellow euro members – and between German voters and their leaders.
In a televised debate between Ms Merkel and her social democrat challenger, Peer Steinbrück criticised her for imposing too much austerity on the southern beneficiaries of EU rescue packages. His intervention offered a glimpse of the debate between senior politicians over Germany’s eurozone policy. Not enough has been heard on either side of the debate, a failing that the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) has exploited.
As Ms Merkel retorted, Mr Steinbrück’s criticism rang hollow inasmuch as his party has supported the government in every vote on European policy. More fundamentally, that policy has on the whole succeeded. After a year and a half of foot-dragging, Berlin last year settled the question of whether Greece would stay inside the euro, and swung definitively behind Mario Draghi’s pledge that the European Central Bank would do “whatever it takes” to prevent the currency bloc’s break-up.
Ms Merkel’s decision to eschew a grand vision underpins her popularity. It is also a virtue of necessity: her countrymen will not opt for a great leap into deeper union. Instead she has persuaded Germany’s lawmakers, step by step, to back growing commitments to rescue loans. Each time, she has demanded something in return in the form of constraints on national budgetary freedom; each time, she has received what she wanted. The result has not always been best for Europe: universal austerity (rather than stimulus from those who can afford it) has needlessly cost jobs and livelihoods. Still, it is far better than the worst-case scenario.
But the chancellor has not come this far without taking risks. Ms Merkel is personally trusted – voting intentions favour her – but German voters harbour misgivings about where her Europe policy will lead. A new poll by Open Europe, a think-tank that promotes ideas for EU reform, finds a majority against any further subsidy of other euro members, whether through more loans, debt forgiveness, eurobonds, “transfer union” or bank backstops – at least unless there is a referendum on the question. Germans’ trust of Ms Merkel is clearly not unconditional.
Other questions reveal splits and confusion in the electorate. A good half of respondents agree with Ms Merkel that if the euro fails, so does Europe; and think the euro must be saved at any price. Almost as many say the euro now threatens the whole European project with its promise of peace and prosperity. And while they do not want their money sent abroad, a large majority state that their view on Germany’s membership of the euro does not depend on whether such transfers will be required. These are the responses of a population excluded from frank deliberation about what the nation ought to do and why. That also explains the emergence of the AfD, which just may enter the Bundestag.
Containing the debate on Europe may have been necessary. The super-cautious approach at least allowed Ms Merkel the political space to adopt them. But there are many steps left to take to heal the eurozone; above all building a banking union. The risk is that the longer Germans feel excluded from the deliberations, the heavier each further step will be for the next chancellor to take. Mr Steinbrück may not gain many votes from opening up the Europe debate. But at least he has prepared the ground for a serious discussion after the election. Germans, and all Europeans, deserve no less.
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