The sheer triviality of the German election campaign is a tribute to the success of the country. Only a nation that is secure and prosperous could afford to have a political debate that is so focused on the little things of life. “It’s funny,” says one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s senior advisers, “foreigners want to know what the German election will mean for the Middle East or for the future of Europe. But we are debating ‘veggie day’ and road tolls.”
While the US, Britain and France are agonising about intervention in Syria, there is no agonising in Germany. A large majority of the electorate wants to stay out of the conflict – and all of the big political parties agree. The moral issue that has divided Germans this election is not chemical weapons, but vegetarianism. The Green party’s proposal that public canteens should stop serving meat, one day a week, has stirred up an impassioned debate about whether politicians have the right to get between Germans and their sausages.
This smallness of the German political debate is peculiar for a nation that is the fourth-largest economy in the world – and the biggest political and economic power in Europe. But a large part of Ms Merkel’s appeal seems to be her ability to persuade Germans that she can protect them from the harshness of the world beyond their borders.
The author Timothy Garton-Ash has highlighted Ms Merkel’s memorably peculiar answer to a question about what feelings Germany awakes in her – “I think of well-sealed windows,” replied the chancellor. “No other country can make such well-sealed and nice windows.” Perfectly-sealed windows are, of course, marvellous for shutting out pollution and noise from the outside world – whether it is the chemical weapons of Syria or the cries of protest from the unemployed of southern Europe.
A similar message of reassurance is projected by a giant election poster, currently on display just outside Berlin’s central station. It shows nothing but the chancellor’s hands – shaped into a pensive “Merkel rhombus”. The message is that Germany is safe in the hands of the deliberative, cautious leader.
To be fair, Ms Merkel can point to plenty of evidence that she really is a safe pair of hands – in particular, her handling of the euro crisis. Just 18 months ago the chancellor was under enormous pressure to take more dramatic action. Some, particularly overseas, urged her to abandon her insistence on economic austerity and to commit to dramatic new forms of economic integration, such as the creation of eurozone bonds. Others, particularly at home, suggested that she should force Greece out of the euro. In the end, the chancellor took neither course. Since then, with help from the European Central Bank, the acute phase of the euro crisis seems to have passed. The economies of southern Europe now seem to be picking up a little – and German unemployment is the lowest it has been for two decades.
As a result, the chancellor enjoys approval ratings of about 60 per cent. The quirks of Germany’s proportional representation system could mean that she is, nonetheless, denied a third term in office. But the overwhelming likelihood remains that Ms Merkel will continue as chancellor after the German election on September 22. If, by then, President Barack Obama has lost the Syria vote in the US Congress, the German chancellor would emerge, by default, as the most authoritative leader in the western world, with a unique record of economic and political success.
Yet the chancellor’s leadership formula may be one of those rare German products that is not suitable for export. It is not every nation that thrills to the sight of a well-sealed window. Nor is it every political leader who has the benefit of the German manufacturing sector powering their economy.
Privately, some of Germany’s more thoughtful policy makers are also well aware that – as a great trading nation and the second-largest exporter in the world – their country depends on a global security system to which it makes little contribution. “You could say our position on Syria is a bit inconsistent,” muses one. “We say we want a rules-based world and that Syria should be punished for using chemical weapons – but that somebody else should do the punishing.” Germany’s strategic thinkers seem to be just as alarmed as their French and British counterparts at the potential global implications if the US Congress votes against action on Syria.
But such sentiments are deeply out of tune with public sentiment in Germany – and probably in the west as a whole. As the British and American debates over Syria have revealed, the general public in the west is much more sceptical about the case for military strikes on Syria than the foreign-policy elite. The difference is that politicians in the US, the UK and France still feel the need to challenge voters by making the case for action. German politicians do not even attempt to make the argument.
The current turmoil in the Middle East shows no sign of provoking Germany to rethink its global role. On the contrary, Germans seem to be even more convinced that they are on the right course. In that context, staging a national debate on vegetarianism is oddly appropriate. When it comes to global security, Germany is a vegetarian nation, in a world that is still full of carnivores.
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