Expect big changes if Angela Merkel manages to win the election
Expect big changes if Angela Merkel manages to win the election
DONALD RUMSFELD famously dismissed France and Germany in January 2003 as bastions of “Old Europe”—supposedly sclerotic welfare states plagued by bureaucracy, unemployment and preening anti-Americanism. New Europe, he implied, existed elsewhere, farther east, in post-Soviet democracies such as Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states. But the boundaries between Old and New Europe may soon be shifting again. National elections will be held in Germany this Sunday. A former physicist turned politician named Angela Merkel is running neck-and-neck with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Should she win and unseat Schröder, Merkel will become Germany’s first
female leader and its first chancellor from the formerly Communist East Germany.
Dubbed by some commentators as a German Margaret Thatcher, Merkel has vowed to restore her country’s close relationship with the United States, and has promised to weaken the power of trade unions and relax hiring and firing laws. She’s even floated the idea of a flat tax. She is often described as “dowdy” by German and international media, but this is unfair. It’s true that Merkel lacks the telegenic slickness of Schröder. But compared with many in her conservative Christian Democratic Union party, whose strongest supporters are stereotypically barrel-chested Bavarians, she’s almost sexy.
Her opponent has also promised to continue his overhaul of Germany’s welfare state and unemployment benefits system. But leftists in Schroder’s Social Democratic Party have seen this as a betrayal. And on the other side, with unemployment still above 11 per cent, few who aren’t irrevocably committed to Germany’s social safety net feel he’s gone far enough. “It’s very doom and gloom right now,” says Florian NickelsTeske, a student from Frankfurt. “People in Germany who haven’t lost their jobs are afraid they will.”
Merkel will ultimately win or lose the election on domestic issues. But should she win, Germany’s relationship with the United States, and with the rest of the world, will change dramatically. In 2003, Merkel criticized Schroder’s opposition to the possibility of war in Iraq, saying such a stand weakened pressure on Saddam Hussein. She has
since demurred on the issue and avoids talking about it. But her stance still stands in marked contrast to that of Schröder, who was on his way to electoral defeat in 2002 before he declared Germany opposed to armed conflict in Iraq.
The move was seen as cynical then. This time around, he has tried a similar tactic by declaring himself opposed to any military option to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. And like an aging rock star who had only one long-ago hit, he’s even made his opposition to the invasion of Iraq a feature of his 2005 election campaign as well.
But playing up to anti-Americanism is a risky tactic in Germany, where feelings toward George W. Bush are almost uniformly hostile but opinions about the United States in general are much more diverse. According to Hartmut Mayer, a politics professor and fellow at Saint Peter’s College at Oxford University, the possibility of Merkel bringing Germany closer to the United States is unlikely to cost her electoral support, as long as she doesn’t appear “obedient” or commit German troops to Iraq. “I think all Germans know that German foreign policy depends on a close relationship with the United States,” he says. Germany is strongest as a mediator between the U.S. and the rest of Europe, Mayer adds.
German society can be divided roughly along three generational lines when it comes to its attitudes about America. The first, those over the age of 70, still remembers the Second World War and America’s role in restoring democracy to the country. This
generation, by and large, remains extremely enthusiastic about the United States, in spite of many fighting in the war. NickelsTeske’s father, for example, recalls being
MERKEL has talked
about weakening trade unions, instituting a flat tax, and a closer relationship to the U.S.
Expect big changes if Ángela Merkel manages to win the election
bombed by American planes during the war. But a more enduring memory is that of being a malnourished boy when the fighting stopped—and American soldiers handing out chocolate.
The second generation consists of Germans who came of age in the 1960s, known collectively as ’68ers. They cut their teeth protesting against the war in Vietnam, still feel a certain antipathy to the United States, and now dominate the country’s intellectual elite.
At 51, Merkel barely fits into the third and final generation, which came of age
post-Vietnam, and which has a more balanced attitude toward the United States. But her relative fondness for America and Britain, and her enmity toward Russia, likely has less to do with her age than with her upbringing in East Germany (Russian President Vladimir Putin worked for the Soviet KGB and was stationed in East Germany during the Cold War). “She knows what a totalitarian state is,” Mayer says. “She lived
under the Stasi, the secret police.” Merkel became involved in East Germany’s democracy movement in 1989 and joined the CDU two months before Germany’s reunification in October 1990. This too helps explain her desire to reach out to other post-Soviet democracies in New Europe. “I think middle and Eastern European countries are close to her heart,” Mayer says. But this doesn’t mean the FrancoGerman axis at the heart of Old Europe will die should Angela Merkel become chancellor. “Both countries know, and everyone else knows, that there is no leadership in Europe unless Germany and France work together,” Mayer says. “But it won’t be as it was in the past: an exclusively GermanyFrance relationship.” Mayer says Merkel will stretch the leadership of the EU to include Britain, and the Eastern European and Baltic members of Rumsfeld’s New Europe.
But if Germany becomes part of New Europe, what will remain of the old? There is no love lost between Merkel and French President Jacques Chirac. But few expect Chirac to be in office past the 2007 presidential election. And Merkel already has a close relationship with Chirac’s rival and likely successor, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, like Merkel, admires the Anglo-American free market economic model and, although his political philosophy is hard to pin down, is usually described as an Atlanticist. France, it seems, is changing too. Angela Merkel’s possible election, therefore, may not mark the end of Old Europe so much as it does the beginning of Old Europe joining the new. Hül
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