During his final European tour, Barack Obama handed the torch of Leader of The Free World to the German Chancellor. However, she is about to face the most difficult campaign of her career.
2016 – just like 1989 – has been a year of major changes in the world. Brexit threatens the United Kingdom and Europe with disintegration. The election of Donald Trump is speeding up the de-westernization of the world and the rise of China to the status of a global power. A new economic cycle is beginning, characterized by de-globalization, rising inflation and rising interest rates. Syria has inaugurated an era of unending wars, and populism is flourishing, having secured a victory in the oldest and most powerful of democracies. 2017 will be no less significant for free nations with elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and, most probably, Italy too.
Against this backcloth of turmoil, Germany stands out as a breakwater of stability. Within the G20, Chancellor Angela Merkel is the longest-serving head of state after Vladimir Putin. During his final European tour, Barack Obama handed her the torch of Champion of the Free World at a time when the United States is veering towards protectionism and isolationism. Furthermore, she has no real rival among the German political class.
And yet, as she stands for a fourth term of office, Angela Merkel is facing the most difficult political situation in her impressive career and the most difficult campaign she has ever undertaken. For everything has changed.
Angela Merkel has changed. Her relations with the German people became strained during the refugee crisis when she was the one who engaged both Germany and Europe in a course that took no account of the many calls for caution that were received. Although she has now been re-elected to the leadership of the CDU, she has no stand that can rally or stimulate public opinion. She is more of a fallback choice than a positive choice.
Germany has changed. Deutschland AG is working at full capacity. Growth is at 1.8%; there is full employment with an jobless rate down to 4.2% of the working population; the trade surplus is 8.6% of GDP; public accounts exceed 0.6% of GDP and the national debt has been reduced to 71% of GDP. But Volkswagen’s “dieselgate” and the Deutsche Bank crisis have highlighed flaws in German-style governance.
Above all, the nation is divided and polarized. The refugee crisis has crystallized the fears of the middle classes of the developed world with regard to globalization, the digital revolution, immigration and Islamic terrorism. In elections, the populist AfD party is obtaining between 12 and 15% of votes.
Europe has changed. It is confronted by a strong resurgence of internal and external security risks. It is the target of the Russian and Turkish démocratures (a combination of democracy and dictatorship), galvanized by the American pullback. It is a central area of operations for Islamic State because of the latter’s decline in the Middle East and Libya. It is disintegrating under pressure from populists – going from Brexit to Renxit. And the euro zone could well be subjected to new pressures with the rise in interest rates and a chronic inability to recapitalize and restructure its banks. In order to survive, Europe must produce wealth, jobs and security and not continue to produce austerity, job seekers and standards.
The world has changed. The world order – dominated by the United States, the champion of the West – is crumbling. The European Union and Germany, reunified on a basis of democracy and market economics, are its offspring. The fallback of the United States leaves the field free for Jihadists and for the strongmen of the démoncratures, who will not hesitate to put Europeans’ will to resist to the test.
With these challenges facing her, Angela Merkel stands out as the candidate of stability. She alone can constitute and lead a coalition of the seven parties that could make up the Bundestag. But she must question herself very seriously if she doesn’t want to imperil German democracy and European unity – two things that have been her guiding principles. She must also re-ignite the Franco-German alliance with the next President of France, so as to reform the European Union.
Paul Claudel said that “In Germany we see the sum of mediocrities, whereas in France we see the neutralization of superiorities.” Let us make 2017 the year in which France and Germany ward off the mediocrity of populism and put their superior qualities together to serve Europe.
(Column published in Le Point, 12th December 2016)