Merkel’s Sinking Support

Merkel’s Sinking Support

German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces dwindling support because of "dithering" on the euro crisis and Germans’ opposition to having troops in Afghanistan, says Germany expert William Drozdiak.

July 8, 2010 11:17 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Recent German polls report plummeting support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition, with Merkel’s policies and leadership coming under particular fire--especially regarding the euro crisis, in which she was seen as indecisive by a public concerned about its "own national interests," says Germany expert William Drozdiak. If Merkel’s conservative coalition loses in state elections next year, her party--the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)--could well turn against her, says Drozdiak, who adds that many Germans are also opposed to her government’s support of keeping German troops in Afghanistan. After years of strong Franco-German partnership in the aftermath of World War II, Drozdiak notes that Merkel is not committed to that alliance, or to the idea of European institutions, and is at odds with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Is Merkel’s right-wing coalition government--the Christian Democrats, Christian Socialists, and Free Democrats--in trouble?

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It is in disarray and, in the view of the public, very unpopular. There is a chance if Merkel’s party loses the three state elections [Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate] that will be coming up in the next year, the party will turn against her and try to find another leader, because a lot of these politicians realize their own future is at stake.

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The problems with Merkel really have come to the fore with the euro crisis. For a number of months earlier this year, there was a chance to contain the problems with Greece, but she seemed to say "No, let’s postpone it." Then she changed her policies or her tactics because, basically, she was interested in postponing the problem beyond the May 9 election in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is the most populated state in Germany and was critical because it would determine whether her party would maintain their majority in the upper house of Parliament.

The smarter thing to do would’ve been to pay about $30 billion up front. If that had been done, Europe could have contained the Greek crisis back in February or March. Instead, she was accused of dithering for political reasons, and then it all came to a fore the weekend of that election. Then the Europeans were forced to pay up much more, and in an emergency summit they came up with a trillion dollar package [759 billion euros], which sort of calmed things down, but led or contributed to her party losing badly at the North Rhine-Westphalia election. As a result, they have lost their majority in the upper house [Bundesrat]. That means they will no longer be able to pass significant legislation.

But Germany’s economy is doing quite well, isn’t it?

They’re doing well because the drop in the euro has enabled their strong export industries to acquire a new advantage. They’re able to sell their cars and their machine tools and other equipment to the United States, to China and other distant markets, but because a significant majority of Germany’s trade is with other European countries, which are now in recession, that’s going to be a problem for them longer term.

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Was it a sign of Merkel’s unpopularity that it took three votes in the Federal Convention to elect Christian Wulff president?

Merkel has systematically emulated former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s strategy of getting rid of potential challengers.

Yes. This is a case where you would’ve thought the governing majority would’ve easily been able to confirm their choice for the presidency, but the opposition Social Democrats and the Green Party very cleverly chose a man of great moral stature, Joachim Gauck, as their proposed candidate. Gauck is somebody without any political affiliation, but he is widely respected in the country--particularly in the east, because he led the investigation into the Stasi spying operations during the East German communist regime. Merkel had been quite close to him. If she had thought ahead, she could’ve chosen him as her candidate, but instead the Social Democrats did so. What she was interested in doing was appointing Wulff because he is considered one of the younger figures in the CDU who could be a rival to her in the future.

Merkel has systematically emulated former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s strategy of getting rid of potential challengers. She forced the premier of Hesse, Roland Koch, who was the No. 2 in the party, to step down. Friedrich Merz was considered the most articulate member of the Parliament in terms of economic policy, and was also a leading Christian Democrat. She forced him to quit politics and now she’s taken Wulff and put him into this honorific position of president and stripped him, really, of strong political power, so she thinks that has cleared the field for her. The most attractive young candidate is Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg; she gave him the most difficult assignment in the cabinet, that of defense minister, because he’s the one who has to defend the presence of German troops in Afghanistan to the German public. About 80 percent of the Germans would like to see their troops brought home.

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How many troops do they have in Afghanistan?

I think they’re up to about four to five thousand.

And they’ve been engaged in combat?

Even though they’re in the north, around Kunduz, there was a serious incident in which a German officer called in an airstrike on an oil tanker, and about a hundred civilians were killed because they were trying to siphon off the gasoline. This also was a big embarrassment and nearly cost Guttenberg his job.

How did this relate to the resignation of the former president, Horst Köhler?

The former president sought to defend the presence of German troops [in Afghanistan] by saying that Germany needs to play a role in international affairs and needs to send troops because our vital interests are at stake here. Then he mentioned the shipping lanes, the international oil sales and how Germany has to step up to defend its own national interests abroad. He was immediately attacked by the opposition. They used the term "gun-boat diplomacy" and that sort of thing. Even though there were no great demands for him to resign, Köhler decided that he was fed up with the way he was treated by Merkel. He suddenly decided to step down from office, which surprised everybody.

You have in Chancellor Merkel somebody who grew up in the east, so she has less of a personal attachment to NATO and the European Union. And the German public these days is much more concerned about its own national interests.

Had he been a challenger to her earlier?

He wasn’t a political threat to her in any sense within her party, but he was clearly upset that she did not speak out on his behalf. He believed his words were misconstrued, and he expected greater support from the government itself.

What has happened to the great French-German coalition, which is at the heart of the European Union?

One of the more ominous developments of our age, in terms of where Europe stands today, is that there seems to be less and less attachment to the European ideal of building greater European integration, eventually culminating in some kind of United States of Europe. This was a very strong movement after the war, and indeed the elderly generation is still attached to it. At the heart of building the united Europe was the French-German partnership. For five hundred years, France and Germany had been going to war with each other.

Then after World War II, NATO and the European Union helped the reconciliation between these two former enemies that became, really, a model for reconciliation for the rest of the world. You had DeGaulle and Adenauer personally taking charge; then you had Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, followed by Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand, all recognizing that France and Germany had to work together in leading Europe. And indeed, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was the agreement between Kohl and Mitterrand that paved the way for the creation of the euro and bringing other countries in, expanding the European Union and NATO to include countries from the East, as well as the West.

But now, you have in Chancellor Merkel, somebody who grew up in the east, so she has less of a personal attachment to NATO and the European Union. And the German public these days is much more concerned about its own national interests. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a new wave of nationalism, it’s just that there’s less European idealism, less willingness to sacrifice on behalf of others. In a way it’s understandable. With the Greek crisis, Germans were saying, "Our government has prolonged our retirement age to sixty-seven years in order to cut back on the deficit. Why should we bail out Greece, which is able to retire at the age of fifty-three?" This had a very strong populist bent, and the tabloid newspapers were playing this up with headlines saying, "The Greeks should sell off their islands if they want to solve their deficit problem" and this sort of thing. Then the Greeks retaliated, saying, "Well the Germans still owe us reparations from World War II." So things got nasty.

Germans have looked down on these southern countries haven’t they?

Yes, there’s a feeling that they have sacrificed, they’ve worked hard to build up prosperity in their country and then they look to what they disparagingly call the "Club Med" countries and they say, "Well, they get to still enjoy fiestas and long afternoons at the beach rather than working hard, the way that Germans do."

How does Merkel get on with President Sarkozy of France?

Merkel and Sarkozy simply don’t get along together; they have a different view of the world. She is much more of a calm, rational, scientific thinker; he is much more mercurial. It’s clear that every time they have a meeting, they come away from it more and more distant from each other. This is another key reason why Europe and the European Union are functioning badly today, because the leaders in France and Germany simply do not comprehend each other.

How close are Merkel’s relations with Obama?

There again, I think they’ve had a difficult time communicating. They do get along reasonably well. Obama’s been disappointed that Merkel hasn’t been more forthcoming in sending more troops to Afghanistan or removing the caveat so that Germans could fight in the southern part of the country with the Americans. More recently, they’ve had some serious disagreements over the direction of the global economy, with Germany saying, "We need to save because we are an aging population," and Obama and his advisers pushing Germany to act as a locomotive to pull Europe out of recession, asking them to spend more in order to help boost the countries around them. Germany has been adamantly opposed to this. The other issue has been this financial transactions tax, which would’ve been an extra tax on the dealings of banks, which the U.S. government has been staunchly opposed to. This has been a disagreement not just with Germany, but with the other leading European countries.

In the aftermath of the Israeli commando attack on the Turkish ship trying to break the Gaza blockade, the German Parliament recently condemned Israel for the blockade. This is unusual, isn’t it?

One strong feature of German foreign policy has been its unwavering support for Israel. In fact, when I travel in Israel, I often hear from all sides of the political spectrum that after the United States, Germany is the best friend of Israel. So this vote against the flotilla raid showed how in the public consciousness and the images they saw on television, particularly of the hardship in Gaza, that there’s a lot more sympathy now for the plight of the Palestinians. A new generation has come to the fore that is removed from any direct experience with the Holocaust and the terrors of the Nazi regime. They feel less personal responsibility and more of a willingness to speak out publicly in criticism of Israel for policies that they feel are unjust.


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