Courtesy Reuters A silhouette of German Chancellor Angela Merkel

The Sleepwalking Giant

Germany’s Boring Election is Bad News For Europe

Germany has been dubbed Europe’s most powerful country, the EU’s “indispensable nation,” but it would be hard to tell from its current election season. The country’s leading politicians have been focused on such weighty matters as whether foreigners should be charged for the privilege of driving on German autobahns and how to calibrate pension rates for civil servants. In the eyes of critics inside and outside the country, the election battle has not only been boring -- it has also been deeply irresponsible, a willful repression of the important issues facing the country. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, Germany’s most eminent intellectual, has charged the elites with a “collective failure.”

It is worth being more specific about what sort of failure this is. That the German public has been deprived of a debate about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership is not particularly tragic. By all accounts, her politics of muddling through are highly popular among Germans; even if Germans were presented with a starker alternative to her than Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic Party candidate, they would likely have gone with Merkel. The real failure is that, in Germany’s first federal election since the outbreak of the eurocrisis in 2010, the fate of the European project has barely figured at all. By now, Europeans should have woken up to the fact of profound financial and political interdependence in the eurozone -- yet they still conduct elections as if they were entirely national affairs.

The curious sleepiness of the election campaign has to do with two peculiar circumstances. One is that Merkel has sought to recycle the strategy that worked for her four years ago, which goes by the awkward name “asymmetric demobilization.” Merkel either says as little as possible about controversial topics or explicitly adopts many of her opponents’ positions, in the hope that the supporters of opposition parties will feel that nothing much is at stake, and hence stay away from the polls. It is the direct opposite of the approach she took in the first federal elections she contested in 2005. Then, Merkel staked out clear positions in the name of her prime political value, “freedom” -- in particular, an ambitious program of cutting the welfare state. The result was that she almost lost an election that was supposed to be a landslide in her favor. The lesson she drew was clear: you cannot be attacked for something you have not said, and you cannot be punished for following public opinion rather than trying to shape it.

The lesson stuck when it came time for Merkel to govern. Critics have called her the first “post-political” chancellor -- she is a leader without any trace of ideological commitment. Instead, she is devoted to process over substance, and willing to adopt any policy position as long as it gives the impression of competence and consensus. Hence Merkel’s astonishing turnaround on nuclear energy after the meltdown of nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan. Although she had previously been one of the country’s leading advocates for extending the life of Germany’s nuclear reactors, she quickly reversed course, pushing for an immediate moratorium on their use. Merkel’s shift reaped the additional tactical advantage of creating a potential governing coalition between her Christian Democrats and the Green Party.

Here, as in many other instances -- the eurocrisis in particular -- Merkel has identified the center of German politics and occupied that space squarely. She has also ensured that no serious rival threatens from within her own party. And yet, even though she is obviously the country’s most powerful decision-maker, she has managed to insulate herself from responsibility for any particular political outcome by refusing to be identified too closely with the details of any given policy.

So why does the opposition appear to have acquiesced in Merkel’s demobilization of its supporters? Here one finds a second peculiarity. The Social Democrats chose a candidate for the chancellorship whose public image is as Merkelian as it gets -- minus the reticence. Steinbrück was Merkel’s finance minister in the “grand coalition” between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that governed Germany from 2005 to 2009. Together, they are often credited with having met the challenges of the financial crisis -- and in some sense, that partnership has endured even after the Social Democrats entered the opposition. From the opposition benches, the party has supported all of Merkel’s eurocrisis policies. As a result, the party has no credible way to attack Merkel during the campaign. (Although it has not spared them Merkel’s suggestions that Social Democrats are unreliable in EU matters -- a bitter insult to a party that had staked so much on seeming responsible in opposition.) It also doesn’t help that Steinbrück is a bit of a loose cannon by nature. He has learned the hard way what Merkel discovered in 2005: the more you say on the campaign trail, the more mistakes you are likely to make. And since Merkel has kept mum, the press has concentrated on Steinbrück’s many mishaps in rhetoric and even in body language: last week, he appeared with a raised middle finger on the cover of Germany’s equivalent of The New York Times Magazine.

More important still is the fact that Merkel’s approach -- managerial, cautious, incremental -- seems to have suited most Germans just fine. They do not feel that the eurocrisis has been truly solved; they have a lingering sense that, after the elections, they will be presented with another bill for Greece. But the last thing they seem to want is some new grand vision for Europe, with more power handed over to Brussels; only the Greens dare to be openly Euro-enthusiastic, and their poll numbers have been steadily declining. (Of course, Merkel also stole their thunder over nuclear energy.)

One might be tempted, then, to think that there is no real problem in Germany at all. If the public wants a boring leader, that is what they will receive. And given the turmoil in neighboring countries, it might seem churlish to begrudge Germany its devotion to consensus and its commitment, when all is said and done, to quietly keep the EU together at any price. But there are real reasons for concern.

First, the true preferences of the German public have become increasingly difficult to discern. It is still unclear whether a substantial number of voters are actually in favor of undoing parts of European integration. A new party, Alternative for Germany, has vowed to work for an “orderly dissolution” of the euro. At present, polls do not indicate that the party will make it into parliament -- but many observers feel that election night could hold a surprise. Given the taboo in Germany against policies that are even remotely “anti-European,” prospective voters might have been reluctant to reveal their true preferences to pollsters. (Alternative for Germany, for its part, has tried to combat the taboo by explicitly distancing itself from right-wing populist movements and by nominating a reassuringly uncharismatic economics professor as its lead candidate.)

Another concern is that asymmetric demobilization -- or, to be more precise, almost symmetrical demobilization, given that even Merkel’s own Christian Democrat constituents are not that excited to vote -- is corrosive to the political system. Democracies need debates and public discourse, as a way to decide on a direction for a polity. This year, voter turnout is expected to be lower than ever before, and prominent intellectuals have made a point of proclaiming that, for the first time, they will abstain. Suddenly, Germans are recalling their civics lessons about the Weimar Republic and how it unraveled because of a lack of democrats truly committed to the political system; there is a growing, although still rather quiet, fear that a truly charismatic right-wing populist could one day capitalize on the country’s creeping disenchantment with politics.

There is another, less obvious worry. Merkel has subtly encouraged European elites to draw a problematic lesson from the eurocrisis, one that is slowly becoming a consensus across the continent. The lesson is that all countries have to watch each other much more closely. She decided at one point that the traditional European institutions for problem-solving and policy innovation -- the European Commission in particular -- could not be relied upon to prevent another Greece. Instead, she is betting on closer coordination of economic and fiscal policies among independent nation-states, with Brussels having some role in supervising individual national budgets, but by no means in a leadership role.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about an approach that empowers national executives at the expense of European institutions and national parliaments. It will lead to a Europe of two parallel universes: on the one hand, the existing EU of 28 member states, which operates on the basis of the European treaties; on the other hand, the eurozone, in which governments make pacts among themselves, sometimes using the EU institutions and sometimes creating new ones ad hoc. To be sure, this re-nationalization has not been Germany’s grand design all along; rather, it is a makeshift solution best explained by the difficulties of achieving any comprehensive transformation of the EU. Such a transformation would require renegotiating the EU’s basic legal settlement and holding referenda on the ensuing new treaty in at least some countries -- which the German government has not been alone in deeming too much of a risk in an age of populism and Euroskepticism (fostered, it must be said, by some European governments, notably Britain).

Merkel has so far been pushing her plan for a parallel eurozone universe without any public debate. Even journalists and intellectuals have taken little note of what a Polish observer of German affairs, Piotr Buras, has called “a silent revolution.”

But it is an open question whether things can stay this quiet for long. In the absence of explanation and discussion, Merkel’s policy of coordination will never gain legitimacy across the continent. For now, Germany is basking in its economic success and might not have to worry about major sacrifices for the sake of the euro. But if they were ever to become necessary, which remains a very real possibility, German elites might regret their acquiescence to democratic demobilization.

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