Monday, January 30, 2012

Germany's Charm Offensive

As it were, I've returned to Brussels after six weeks in the United States and its Caribbean possessions. I'm still a sort-of super intern, with some more responsibility, a slight raise, and a different living situation. I will be here until the end of June. It's good to be back in Europe, living here for the fifth time now if you count it as separate from last year. I'll get to see some new places like Switzerland and maybe Russia, and hope to make it to Ypres's cat-throwing festival and a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo.

I return to a Europe still on the brink of calamity due to the euro crisis, though it feels calm and the EU decisions of last December make muddling through more likely than apocalypse. Belgium actually has a government, which is novel. Today the country has been shut down by a general strike, with a dusting of snow thrown in for good measure. And Germany is still making people mad.

Extra supervision of member state budgets is probably one of the inevitable measures for getting over the euro crisis. But Germany has been particularly tone-deaf in suggesting an EU budget commissioner take over Greek fiscal policy. I can't say I'm optimistic about Greece improving its finances - default seems inevitable, perhaps even in March when a 14.4 million euro bond comes due, and a new government in April could well lead Greece out of the eurozone and even the European Union. But with technocratic governments in place in both Greece and Italy due a combination of market and northern European political forces, and with Germany's history, a little more respect for Greek sovereignty and democracy is due. This crisis has seen Germany's emergence as the political leader as well as the economic leader of the European Union, and so far it is doing an even worse job diplomatically than it is in solving the crisis.

I write this as someone who loves Germany, speaks the language, and knows the history, hardly a Germanophobe. But Angela Merkel is not doing a very good job these days, nor any of the parties in her coalition. I'll object to the Bavarian conservatives simply on principle, they're far too conservative. The Free Democrats have been inept in government under the leadership of Guido Westerwelle, also an inept foreign minister, and haven't improved noticeably under Philipp Roesler. And Merkel's Christian Democratic Union has lost virtually all of its leaders capable of challenging Merkel to various scandals as she has dragged through a disappointing second term. Its parliamentary leader, Volker Kauder, proudly claimed that "now all of Europe is speaking German" a few months ago. Perhaps the Social Democrats would do better.

One prominent European who is now speaking German is none other than the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. In a TV interview last night he profusely praised Germany as a fiscal model for France. Merkel and Sarkozy have always had an awkward partnership, despite general ideological compatibility, so it was a bit surprising when Merkel announced that she'd not only tacitly endorse Sarkozy's reelection - which she would be expected to do as a fellow leader of the European People's Party - but actually campaign for him. She is obviously afraid that Socialist Francoise Hollande would demand the renegotiation of some of the deals stitching together the euro crisis response. But such blatant intervention in French internal affairs does not strike me as a good thing. The only time I can remember the leader of one country campaigning for his or her preferred candidate in the election of a close partner country, with joint appearances on the campaign trail, was when Vladimir Putin tried to assist Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2004. That resulted in the Orange Revolution. Which brings me to a second point - Merkel campaigning for Sarkozy is probably counterproductive. France and Germany have a strong partnership, but they also have a long history - and the French are as proud a nation as I can think of. If Germany says vote for Sarkozy, I can see more voters persuaded to vote for Hollande - or Marine Le Pen.

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