United in Indecision
For ausländers, German elections are a dull affair. For years, elections in the fourth largest economy in the world, the keystone state of the eurozone and the world’s shrine to triumph over tyranny have been covered by global journalists with glazed eyes and few paragraphs. For just as long journalists have mused about why German elections are such a non-event. German federal elections are, after all, just that; they carry little bearing on the regional governments that carry clout in the German economy, leaving the Chancellor as something of a trumped up Foreign Secretary to bring German views to the G20 and the United Nations Security Council.
It may also be because politics is so cohesive and non-combative in the eurozone’s engine room. Much like Scandinavia, there seems to be an overarching strive towards consensus and agreement that just isn’t present in Britain or the US. Journalists who have a more historical bent revive Germany’s last interaction with aggressive, extreme politics as the reason why present day debate is so docile. The most controversial comment Merkel can say about her opponent Peer Steinbrück is that he isn’t “reliable” in a European crisis; it just seems so tame in comparison to Anglosphere politics. However, the far reaching implications of this election in particular mean that it certainly merits a more diligent response from the world’s press corps.
On the face of it, the platitudes of this election are just like any other: one side claiming economic success or progress, the other side adding notes of caution and concern across the board. Debates are about pensions for mothers, rent controls and the railways. Given the crisis still rocking the currency area it is perplexing that domestic debate is so conventional, so much so that the Frankfurt-based elephant in the room becomes all the more obvious. CDU supporters wear shirts that print “Keep Calm and Vote for Angie,” they might as well state “Keep Calm and Don’t Mention the Eurozone”. Others have picked up on this as well, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has commented with scorn on how pathetically banal and cowardly the dialogue of the election has been thus far, with either side’s vision for the future of the eurozone being put to one side in favour of comments about road tolls for foreigners. Whilst the Christian Democratic Union and Social Democrats have taken their positions for and against eurozone austerity, respectively, they are not making clear what sort of eurozone they would like to see emerge from the crisis.
Defenders of the campaign state that it is impossible to have a discussion on eurozone integration and cross-border reform within the confines of a national election. It is responsible of Germany, they say, to have taken a laid back approach to international disputes and debates when others wouldn’t have the motivation to tackle the issue responsibly, and this has fed through to national politics. Certainly, approval ratings for politicians in Germany are the envy Anglicised countries, the German public seem happy to not talk about the eurozone as well. This is despite the fact that Germans, more than ever if the polls are to be believed, feel that their country is a star of success compared to the rest of the eurozone. They know they have all the power, but don’t want to take the lead in much other than football and the Winter Olympics.
Germany presents itself as the nation which has all the cards but is too polite to use them. This is a touch disingenuous. The way Germany has orchestrated the common market to benefit German industry is masterful realpolitik and whilst Germans may moan about shelling out for bailouts (the latest tranche of which are just around the corner) the way the eurozone is designed it is impossible for Germany not to get an economic windfall further down the line. It is telling that this time of EU and eurozone paralysis has come at the precise time when Angela Merkel is distracted with domestic politics.
In terms of Britain’s involvement, Cameron has developed a good relationship with Angela Merkel who, it is whispered, might offer him repatriation of EU powers in exchange for support on EU integration and austerity against Francois Hollande, the French President. As a result, he would be undermined if Angela Merkel’s soft lead evaporates over the next two weeks to leave the Social Democrat Steinbrück the keys to the Chancellery. That would be a boost for Ed Miliband, who could add the German Chancellor to his growing list of friends across the Channel. The left could muse about a grand alliance between the UK France and Germany if Miliband were to win in 2015, but it is still too early to say if it will work out personally between the three. Thatcher and Kohl were ideologically similar but their relationship marked a low point in Anglo-German relations.
As regards Germany however, recent history has shown time and again that Germans can act as a force for good on the world stage, if only they can bring themselves to. For the most part, there has been a “nothing ventured, nothing lost” attitude in the German parliament, but that certainly isn’t true this time. If it doesn’t get its act together, the eurozone will wish it had spent these months more productively in the years ahead; Germany’s toothless attitude on Syria, regardless of the stance it takes, is not healthy for international discussion on military intervention and the need for some kind of moderator on international discussions between Russia and the US is apparent. In all of these cases a Germany united in its desire to do nothing is hardly the best message to send to an economic community and a region in need of leadership.
So the question arises, how can Germany get to a place where it can lead whilst keeping in step with the electorate? Perhaps Angela Merkel could take a leaf out of David Cameron’s book on this front. Whether you agree with the UK government’s decision to engage in a deficit reduction strategy or not, you cannot deny that the ground was prepared very effectively beforehand. The 2009 Conservative party conference, regardless of its economic repercussions is exemplary in how to present to the electorate a need to do something about a certain issue. The world is hoping that someone in Germany is willing to do something similar and demand a more strident Germany on the world stage. Someone who invokes a Germany that is less about its past and more about its future.