The mess Merkel leaves behind
ONLY OTTO VON BISMARCK and Helmut Kohl was German Chancellor longer than Angela Merkel. Bismarck forged an empire and invented the first public pension and health care systems in Europe. Kohl oversaw the reunification of East and West Germany and agreed to replace the beloved Deutschmark with the euro.
Ms. Merkel’s achievements are more modest. During her 16 years in the Chancellery, she went through a series of crises, from the economic to the pandemic. Her abilities as a consensus-maker have served her country and Europe well. But his government has neglected too much, nationally and internationally. Germany has gotten away with it, so far; the country is prosperous and stable. Still, trouble is brewing. And as Merkel prepares to step down when a new government is formed after this weekend’s election, admiration for her steadfast leadership should mingle with frustration at the complacency she has engendered.
The list of neglected topics is long (see our Special Feature). Germany looks like a purring luxury car; open the hood, however, and the signs of neglect are evident. The public sector has not invested adequately or wisely, falling behind its peers in building infrastructure, especially of the digital type. This is hampering not only the dazzling new tech companies, but every other business as well. It also makes government less efficient, a problem exacerbated by the inability to hire enough staff. Penny-pinching is wired in the state. In 2009, under Merkel’s watch, Germany got stuck with a constitutional amendment that bans recording more than a tiny deficit. With interest rates so low, sane governments should have borrowed to invest, without fainting at the first dot of red ink.
Germany’s most serious domestic problem is the failure to reform its pension system. Germans are aging rapidly, and baby boomers will place an even greater burden on the budget later this decade as they retire. When it comes to climate change, Germany has also been slow and still emits more carbon per capita than any other major EU country, not helped by Merkel’s closure of the German nuclear industry after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.
In Europe, where German influence matters most, Merkel’s reluctance to exercise it has been particularly disappointing. The EU did not fight enough against the weakness of its indebted southern members. It was only during the pandemic that he created a financial instrument that allows EU issue jointly guaranteed debts and distribute part of the money in the form of grants rather than additional loans. But it was designed as a unique piece. Worse, the “stability” rules that will force countries to fall back into austerity to reduce their outstanding debt are ready to be revived, unless they are amended. Germany, still the strongest voice in EU table, should have argued harder for a smarter approach.
In EU foreign policy, Germany could and should have done more to force a faster adjustment to a new, less comfortable world. China is an increasingly difficult economic and strategic rival, Russia an unpredictable threat, and America a distracted and uncertain ally. Yet Germany hesitated. Despite recent increases, it spends too little on defense. He is approaching Beijing in the hope of better trading conditions. It gives Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, a vice on the European energy supply by supporting the new gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 which, in this case, touches the ground in the district of Mrs. Merkel. It is up to others, mainly French President Emmanuel Macron, to advocate for Europe to do more.
But which German candidate could do better than Merkel? Polls suggest that Germany is ready for a messy new parliament, without a single party, or even two, capable of forming a government. Instead, some sort of ideologically inconsistent three-way coalition is in sight – one which, by combining spendthrift greens and pro-business liberals, may find it difficult to agree on anything ambitious. .
This is another symptom of Merkel’s complacency. Comfortable and cautious Germans do not seem interested in a serious debate about the future. Crisis management has become a substitute for initiative. Applicants have no incentive to highlight their country’s looming problems. The result was one of the less important campaigns in decades: all about horse racing, not problems.
Among the possible outcomes, two seem the most likely. One is a coalition led by Ms Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats and their sister Bavarian party (the CDU / CSU), directed by Armin Laschet. The other is a coalition led by Olaf Scholz, social democrats (SPD), who is the German Minister of Finance. In both cases, the coalition would be joined by the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. Both results will have serious shortcomings, but of the two, The Economist slightly prefers the second: a coalition “at the traffic lights”, led by Mr. Scholz.
It is because the CDU / CSU, frankly, blew it. Sixteen years in power were enough. The party is short of ideas and dynamism, as is clearly shown by its decision to choose Mr. Laschet, prone to blunders and without interest, for the post of chancellor. An affable lightweight, he has waged a dismal campaign and is expected to lead his team to their worst result since WWII. Polls say Mr Scholz is preferred by twice as many voters.
The left tug
Are they right, however? There are reasons to hope so, but also many fears. Mr. Scholz has been an effective finance minister. The German people trust him. It is better placed than a CDU chancellor would work with the Greens on climate change. The problem is that although he belongs to the pro-business wing of his party, the SPD is full of leftists. They can try to drag it farther in their direction than free Democrats will and the company can comfortably endure.
The world should expect the coalition talks to last for months, disrupting European politics as they drag on. And at the end of it all, Germany might just end up with a government that doesn’t do much. This is the mess Ms Merkel left behind. ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The Mess Merkel Leaves Behind”