Europe's Futures Visiting Fellow, Judy Dempsey, in this post, discusses the current political situation in Germany, and its outlook for the future of Europe.
Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves office in September. Her successor needs to create a foreign policy that is strategic in outlook, breaks with the status quo and sets a new compass for the European Union and its neighbors.
Her apology and request for forgiveness was extraordinary.
Yet this is what Angela Merkel did on March 24.
During a short statement and later during questions in the Bundestag, the German Chancellor was contrite to the point of embarrassment.
Parliamentarians didn’t know whether to place all the blame on Merkel for the mis-handling of the coronavirus, or grudgingly respect her for taking full responsibility for the slow rollout of the vaccinations and the tight lockdown that was to be imposed during the long Easter weekend.
The lockdown was already in the making, spurred by the sharp rise in infections. It was to start on Thursday, March 25 through to the following Easter Monday. There would be some respite. Food and other essential shops would be open on the Saturday. But because the Easter period is generally always quiet it should not have been a big deal to sell the lockdown to the public.
It was, because this tighter lockdown punctured the patience of many Germans. (Since last December, there has been no physical school in Berlin for the 7th, 8th and 9th classes). Young and old, parents, doctors, nurses, teachers, shop assistants, employees across the board want the jab and a perspective.
But the stifling bureaucracy, extreme caution over the Astra Zeneca vaccination and the miserable level of Germany’s digitization has left the country unprepared for what Merkel herself said over a year ago was the greatest crisis and challenge facing Germany since 1945. Merkel’s Germany hasn’t yet risen to the challenge posed by the third wave of Covid-19.
The blame game has begun with Merkel’s conservative bloc being hammered in the opinion polls. Ahead of next September’s federal elections, Merkel’s unassailability has given way to vulnerability.
Perhaps there is a silver lining to this pandemic. It could be the catalyst for the next German government to adopt much-needed radical policies, domestically, on the European Union level and with regard to its Eastern neighbors.
Domestically, the tired and predictable political elites have resorted to muddling through. If that continues after September, Germany will be left behind. Covid-19 has exposed huge gaps in the country’s preparedness to compete with other economies that are more nimble and more digitally advanced than Germany.
Furthermore, the heavy hand of bureaucracy has to give way to flexibility. The bureaucratic hindrances are well-known and so often criticized. But they are perpetuated by lobbies on the one hand and inertia, habit and risk aversion on the other.
As for Europe, Merkel has long shied away from articulating how she saw Europe’s future. She had had many opportunities to spell out a policy since becoming Chancellor in late 2005. She didn’t take them. Instead, she opted for the status quo. The coronavirus exposed the shortcomings of crisis management in the EU and in Germany. Surely those shortcomings confirm the need for more fiscal and political integration, an agenda that a new German government should embrace.
Then there’s foreign policy.
Merkel has spoken out against human rights violations in Russia and China. She warned the Kremlin of consequences after Russian opposition leader Alexiy Navalny was poisoned with a chemical substance in August, 2020. Those words have not been translated into a strategic foreign policy that manages to reconcile interests with values.
Maybe the Biden administration might inject some strategic thinking into the German and European debate.
Already, because of the administration’s approach to human rights, the EU is getting tough on China. This is a big setback for Beijing. It used the Trump administration to divide the transatlantic relationship. The visit by U.S secretary of state Antony Blinken to Brussels on March 23-24 stiffened the backbone of the EU. The sanctions will not please the influential German trade lobbies that are so active in China. But here is a chance for the EU and the United States to combine interests with values.
That should be the same strategy for dealing when it comes to dealing with EU member states that have been eroding the rule of law, the independent judiciary, the media and the autonomy of academic institutions.
For far too long Merkel’s silence – even if she did criticize the Polish or Hungarian governments in private – and the Commission’s caution in not taking these Budapest and Warsaw to task much earlier has allowed both countries to institutionalize their illiberal democracies.
Again, the Biden administration may apply pressure on Budapest and Warsaw, even though this should be up to Brussels to defend the rule of law inside the EU. Its unwillingness to deal with these issues head-on might have been reversed had Berlin taken a tough stance early on.
In essence, since Germany exerts immense influence in the EU, it’s going to need a younger, less status quo-oriented leadership at the helm in Berlin next September. Covid-19 should be the catalyst for change. If not, Europe’s political health will deteriorate precisely at the time when the United States needs a strong Europe to revitalize the West.