The Paradoxical Strength of Germany’s Merkel

Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany feels free to criticize openly and even harshly all the powerful nations with which she deals. They all continue to try to court her. She has incredibly high support in German polls, and seemingly in world public opinion. Yet nothing in her background would lead anyone to expect this remarkable show of strength for herself personally and through her for Germany as a nation. This is a paradox that needs to be explained.

She started life as a physical chemist with a Ph.D. from a university in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). She navigated the political scene as a non-participant. She joined the government-approved Free German Youth but did not participate in its coming of age ceremony, preferring to follow a Protestant ceremony. Her father was a Protestant pastor.

She entered political life only at the moment that East Germany was collapsing, and rose rapidly in the transitional government. With formal integration into the German Federal Republic, she became an active member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Elected to Parliament, she was soon in the cabinet, and was considered a protégé of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In pursuing her ascension within the CDU, she had to overcome several negatives. She was a woman. She was from the old East German zone. She was a Protestant in a party that was largely supported by Catholic voters. After the CDU lost an election to the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) in 2002, she became the Secretary-General of the CDU and then its Leader. The CDU with its partner party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), together narrowly won the 2005 election. Neither the CDU/CSU nor the SPD had enough support to govern alone and had to form a grand coalition. In the vote of parliament for Chancellor, Merkel was chosen, but with considerable opposition.

Today, some nine years later, she has become the longest-serving head of government in the European Union, with undisputed control of the politics and foreign policy of her country. In her recent re-election as leader of her party, she received 96.7% of the vote.

Clearly, a part of her present strength is the seemingly strong economic parameters of Germany, with very positive export surpluses and relatively low unemployment. Merkel has taken this position to pursue quietly but very effectively firm foreign policy objectives.

She has chided very publicly France (and Italy) for not meeting their obligations under European Union (EU) policy to reduce their fiscal deficit to less than 3%. She met strong resistance from President François Hollande of France, who came into office originally as a sort of “anti-Merkel” calling for greater flexibility in the application of EU fiscal obligations. The outcome of this public disagreement was France’s reshuffling of its cabinet. Manuel Valls, who has a position close to that of Merkel, was named as Prime Minister, and Arnaud Montebourg, representing the point of view of left elements in France, resigned from the cabinet. Not only has Hollande ceded more or less to Merkel but he gets no reward for it from French public opinion, his polls declining catastrophically while Merkel’s are higher than ever.

Merkel has been equally ready to take on Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron thought that, as fellow conservatives, Merkel would understand his need to make strong demands on the EU that would help him hold off the growing anti-EU sentiment in Great Britain. There have been two immediate issues. The EU has a complicated mode of fiscal adjustment in the sums that members must pay each year. This year, Great Britain was assessed an extra 1.7 billion pounds and Cameron has flatly refused to pay it, although such reassessments are quite normal.

More important however is Cameron’s demand that Great Britain be allowed to create quotas for migrants from other EU countries. Merkel has made it clear, very loudly, that she regards free movement of EU citizens within the EU as a cornerstone of the EU, untouchable. She warned him that pursuing such a policy would only be possible if Great Britain left the EU, exactly what Cameron is trying to avoid. Yet, Cameron’s internal political squeeze is so great that he has no alternative but to continue to plead with Merkel.

Merkel was been equally critical of President Obama. Although presumably strongly supportive of a close relation with the United States, she has publicly expressed her great disappointment at the report that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on her directly and more generally on German internal affairs. All Obama promised to do was to review the most grievous aspects of such espionage, while Merkel has said that the end does not justify the means and that “trust needs to be rebuilt…[W]ords will not be sufficient.”

Perhaps more important however is probably her persistent foot-dragging on Ukraine sanctions. She has frustrated all U.S. attempts to increase sanctions, insisting on the priority of diplomacy.

That brings us to the question of her position on Russia. Publicly her criticisms of Russia’s policies in the Ukraine are stringent and growing stronger. In practice, Merkel and President Vladimir Putin of Russia have spoken directly more than 40 times since the so-called Ukraine crisis began. Merkel is fluent in Russian and Putin in German, so communication is quite clear. The search for a diplomatic “solution” to the differences is supported very strongly by Germany’s Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD who has long sought to pursue friendly diplomacy. This is seconded by the more than 4000 German firms who have direct economic interests in Russia. Further sanctions might hurt Germany as much as Russia.

One leading British conservative newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, evaluated very sensibly Merkel’s political secret. “She makes deals, not speeches, and puts compromise ahead of controversy….She is the ultimate political realist, always willing to strike a deal, but never at any price.”

Merkel is a centrist conservative and in no way a radical of any sort. In a sense what she has been trying to do is to teach other powerful countries and their leaders that, if they want a centrist conservative outcome, they have to play the game her way. Of course, this assumes that the fundamental structure of the world-system is not itself under threat, and that Germany can continue to seem so economically strong. I doubt that. I think that several years from now Germany will most probably succumb to more of the negatives the current state of the world-system is imposing on all countries. Still, for the moment Angela Merkel rules the roost.