Category Archives: Germany

Kraft steps down as NRW result gives boost to Merkel’s fourth-term hopes

Hannelore Kraft will step down as the regional leader of the Social Democratic Party in North Rhine-Westphalia after leading the state’s government for seven years. (Facebook)

There’s no way for the German left to sugarcoat Sunday’s regional election result in North Rhine-Westphalia.

It’s the clearest sign yet that after flirting with Martin Schulz earlier this year, German voters are coming back to Angela Merkel and the center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union).

North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany’s most populous state, and it’s one of the industrial and technological heartlands of Europe. It’s a relatively left-leaning state — since 1966, the only CDU leader to run the state’s government was Jürgen Rüttgers, from 2005 to 2010. Moreover, it’s the state where Schulz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate for this September’s federal elections, grew up. It’s home to 17.8 million of Germany’s 82 million-plus population. So four months before the national election, NRW has as more predictive power than you might typically expect for a state election, considering that its electorate equals just over one-fifth of the electorate that will decide the national government in September.

It’s too soon to guarantee that Merkel will win a fourth consecutive term, even with the decisive victory last weekend — the third and most important CDU win in three state elections this year. But the result is a clear sign that Schulz’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) is struggling to connect with working-class voters who are turning increasingly to alternatives from the anti-immigrant right to the protectionist left to the reassuring stability of the Merkel-era CDU. Indeed, the CDU campaigned throughout the spring on the notion that Merkel and her allies amounted to a ‘safe pair of hands.’ Continue reading Kraft steps down as NRW result gives boost to Merkel’s fourth-term hopes

Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a conservative Christian Democrat, won a second term as minister-president in Saarland on March 26. (Facebook)

No sooner than Martin Schulz seemed to have captured political lightning in a bottle, his party fizzled in the first state-level test in the leadup to Germany’s autumn federal election.

In the southern state of Saarland last weekend, chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) not only won the election, but improved its support since the last election in 2012, giving the state’s conservative minister-president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has served in that role since 2011, a second term.

Headlines blared that the narrow defeat somehow marked a defining moment for Schulz, the newly crowned leader of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), which has pulled into a virtual tie with the CDU in opinion polls for the national vote in September.

Don’t believe the hype.

It’s one of the smallest of Germany’s sixteen states, both in area and in population (996,000). Nevertheless, Saarland’s size isn’t the only reason its election results will have little impact on a federal election still six months away and even less predictive value. It’s true that the state election, the first of three such state-level votes this spring, showed that the CDU’s political power isn’t evaporating overnight. But Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose Christian Democrats led every opinion poll in the weeks and months preceding the vote, should have expected to win Saarland’s election.

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RELATED: As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives
Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

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Though the renegade Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine — one of the founders of what is today the democratic socialist Die Linke  ran the state government from 1985 until 1998, when he briefly became Germany’s finance minister, Saarland before 1985 — and since 1999 — has always been friendly territory for the Christian Democrats.

Far more consequential will be the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany (with around 17.8 million people) and one of its most wealthy, on May 14 — and in Schleswig-Holstein a week earlier.

In NRW, Hannelore Kraft, a pro-growth Social Democrat who has often been mentioned as a future chancellor, is hoping to win reelection to a third term (she assumed the office of minister-president in 2010). Though the state is historically competitive, Kraft is a popular official, and the SPD has recently taken a meaningful lead since Schulz — who grew up in Eschweiler, a city on the state’s western edge near both The Netherlands and Belgium — became the party’s chancellor candidate. If the Social Democrats fail to hold NRW, it will be a far more depressing harbinger, for many reasons (a fifth of the German electorate, a longtime bellwether, popular SPD incumbent, Schulz’s home state), than the Saarland result.

Continue reading Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

Across Europe, support for Trump-style populists is falling, even though many European populists were growing long before Trump entered the political scene. (123RF / Evgeny Gromov)

If there’s one thing that unites Europeans, it’s the concept that they are better — more enlightened, more cultured and more sophisticated — than Americans.

That was especially true during the presidency of George W. Bush, when France, Germany and other leading anchors of the European Union vociferously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2002, it sometimes seemed like German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was running against Bush, not against his conservative German challenger, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber.

Europeans might be leaning in a similar direction in the Trump era, even though it’s hardly been a month since Donald Trump took office. In the days after Trump’s surprise election last November (and after the Brexit vote last summer), populists like Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France had reason to believe that Trump’s victory would give political tailwinds to their own electoral efforts in 2017.

If anything, however, Europeans are pulling back from populism in the first months of 2017. As four of the founding EU countries gear up for elections in the coming months — the first will be The Netherlands in just nine days — the threat of a Trump-style populist surging to power seems increasingly farfetched.

Maybe Europeans simply outright disdain what they perceive as the vulgar, Jacksonian urges of American voters. Maybe it’s shock at the way Trump’s inexperienced administration has bumbled through its first 40 days or the troubles of British prime minister Theresa May in navigating her country through the thicket of Brexit and withdrawing from the European Union.

More likely though, it could be that Trump’s oft-stated criticism of NATO and praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin have finally shaken Europeans out of the fog that’s gathered for 70 years under the penumbra of pax Americana. Even as officials like US vice president Mike Pence and US defense secretary James Mattis reassure European allies that the United States is committed to the trans-Atlantic security alliance, Trump continues to muse about NATO being obsolete (as recently as the week before his inauguration). Furthermore, the America-first nationalism that emerged from Trump’s successful campaign has continued into his administration and promises a new, more skeptical approach to prior American obligations not only in Europe, but worldwide. Just ten days into office, Trump trashed the European Union as a ‘threat’ to the United States, only to back down and call it ‘wonderful’ in February. Breitbart, the outlet that senior Trump strategist Stephen Bannon headed until last summer, ran a headline in January proclaiming that Trump would make the European Union ‘history.’

All of which has left Europeans also rethinking their security position and considering a day when American security guarantees are withdrawn — or simply too unreliable to be trusted.

Arguably, NATO always undermined the European Union, in structural terms, because NATO has been the far more important body for guaranteeing trans-Atlantic security. Though Federica Mogherini is a talented and saavy diplomat, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is far less important to trans-Atlantic security than the NATO secretary-general (currently, former Norwegian prime minster Jens Stoltenberg). While the stakes of EU policymaking — trade, consumer and environmental regulation, competition law and other economic regulation and a good deal of European fiscal and monetary policy — aren’t low, they would be higher still if the European Union, instead of NATO, were truly responsible for European defense and security. That’s perhaps one reason why the European Union has been stuck since the early 2000s in its own ‘Articles of Confederation’ moment — too far united to pull the entire scheme apart, not yet united enough to pull closer together.

Perhaps, alternatively, it has nothing to do with blowback to Trump or Brexit, and voters in the core western European countries, which are accustomed to a less Schumpeterian form of capitalism, are simply more immune to radical swings than their counterparts subject to the janglier peaks and valleys of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It’s not too much to think that, possibly, in the aftermath of both Brexit and Trump’s election, core Europe, unleashed from the toxic dynamic of British euroscepticism and emboldened to forge new relationships from outside the American security aegis, may be finding a new confidence after years of economic ennui.

Nevertheless, populists across Europe who tried to cloak themselves in the warm embrace of Trumpismo throughout 2016 are increasingly struggling in 2017. A dark and uncertain 2016 is giving way rapidly to a European spring in 2017 where centrists, progressives and conservatives alike are finding ways to push back against populist and xenophobic threats.  Continue reading Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Martin Schulz, formerly the European Parliament president, has returned to German domestic politics in recent weeks. (Facebook)

For the past two elections, Germany’s center-left has tried to stymie chancellor Angela Merkel with two jowly, doughy figures compromised by high service in Merkel-led ‘grand coalition’ governments. 

And for the past two elections, Germany’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has won a smaller share of the vote than at any other time in postwar German history.

For months, it appeared that the Social Democrats were set to sleepwalk into making the same error in 2017.

With the federal election formally set for September 24, it seemed that the SPD would choose as its candidate for chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the economy minister who serves as vice chancellor in the current Große Koalition and who has served as the party’s official leader since 2009.

Though polls showed Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), in power since 2005, losing some ground to the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), they still maintained a consistent lead of anywhere from 11% to 17% against the Social Democrats. With Gabriel at the helm, the SPD seemed content to lose another election to Merkel, perhaps willing to suffer as the junior partner in her fourth-term governing coalition or otherwise in complete opposition.

So it was a surprise to see Gabriel on Tuesday bow out of competition to lead his party into the 2017 elections and instead endorse Martin Schulz, who stepped down as the president of the European Parliament just weeks ago to return to German politics. Continue reading As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

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Germany’s chancellor since 2005, Angela Merkel is widely believed to be preparing to seek fourth term in the 2017 federal elections. (Facebook)

It’s entirely possible that September 2016 marks the worst month of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.Germany Flag Iconmecklenburg-vorpommern berlin

Merkel’s center-right party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) fell to third place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a relatively low-population state of just 1.6 million that sprawls along the northern edge of what used to be East Germany. While the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has been traditionally stronger there in elections since reunification, two factors made the CDU’s loss particularly embarrassing. The first is that it’s the state that Merkel has represented since her first election in 1990 shorly after German reunification. The second, and more ominous, is that the CDU fell behind the eurosceptic, anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland (Afd, Alternative for Germany), a relatively new party founded in 2013 that today holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and that, according to recent polls, will easily win seats in the Bundestag in next September’s federal elections.

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Two weeks later, on September 18, Merkel’s CDU also suffered losses in Berlin’s state election. As left-wing parties have long dominated Berlin’s politics, and the SPD placed first and Germany’s Die Linke (the Left) and Die Grünen (the Greens) placed third and fourth behind the CDU. But even in Berlin, the AfD still won 14.2% of the vote.

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Taken together, the state election results forced a mea culpa from Merkel on Monday. The chancellor, who is expected (though by no means certain) to seek a fourth consecutive term next year, departed from the calm, steely confidence that since last summer has characterized her commitment to accept and integrate over a million Syrian refugees within Germany’s borders. Merkel admitted, however, that she would, if possible, rewind the clock to better prepare her country and her government for the challenge of admitting so many new migrants, and she admitted lapses in her administration’s communications. With the AfD showing no signs of abating, it’s clear that its attacks on Merkel’s open-door policy are working. Merkel’s statement earlier this week admitted that her policies have not unfolded as smoothly as she’d hoped.

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RELATED: Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

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Indeed, German polls are starting to show that voters are souring on Merkel and her approach to migration, so much that in one poll in August for Bild, a majority of voters no longer support a fourth term for Merkel. All of which has led to hand-wringing both in Germany and abroad that Merkel’s days are numbered.

Don’t believe it. Continue reading Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state elections provide test for both Merkel, German hard right

German chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to deny Germany's new anti-immigration right a victory in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. (Facebook / Laurence Chaperon)
German chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to deny Germany’s new anti-immigration right a victory in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. (Facebook / Laurence Chaperon)

 On September 4, German chancellor Angela Merkel will face one of her final electoral tests this year before most Germans believe she will attempt to win a fourth term in 2017.Germany Flag Iconmecklenburg

That test comes in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the sprawling state that flows across the north of what used to be East Germany and, as has been reported extensively, Merkel’s own home state. Voters will select all 71 members of the regional assembly, the Landtag, on Sunday, September 4.

Though the state is home to just 1.6 million people, it’s one of two state elections this month (the other is in the left-leaning Berlin on September 18), and it’s really the first political test since March of the appeal of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) that hopes to win over 20% of the vote and, perhaps, edge out Merkel’s own party, the more center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party).

The CDU, under Merkel’s leadership, has led Germany since 2005, and it has also served as a junior partner in a coalition government in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern since 2006, alongside the more dominant center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). Nationally, the CDU serves as the senior partners alongside the SPD in the second of two ‘grand coalitions’ that Merkel has headed since winning power over a decade ago.

As Europeans weigh the wisdom of Nice’s ill-fated (and judicially reversed) decision to ban ‘burkinis’ and as Germany’s state interior ministers try to adopt a limited burqa ban in public spaces, Merkel’s popularity is still sagging from a decision last summer — easily the boldest of her political career — to permit nearly one million Syrian refugees to settle in Germany at the height of the largest wave of migration in Europe since World War II.

Polls show that the AfD is roughly tied with, or even leading, the CDU in the state, each with anywhere from 19% to 23% of the vote, with the SPD leading in the range of between 24% and 28%. In a series of state elections earlier this year, the AfD performed best in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, winning nearly 25% of the vote there in March.

But reports that Merkel’s decision about whether to seek a fourth term — or the contours of a national election next September — could be significantly affected by a regional election in one of Germany’s most sparsely populated states are misguided. Barring a more lopsided upset, the SPD-CDU coalition is almost certain to continue under the state’s minister-president since 2008, social democrat Erwin Sellering. Though the refugee crisis has dented Merkel’s popularity, the CDU holds a wide lead nationally over the SPD and Germany’s other parties, though the AfD is now winning the support of between 10% and 15%, which would be enough to make it Germany’s third-most popular party. Victories in a handful of states is a far different thing that sustaining support until next year’s election, especially as the AfD has suffered from a self-inflicted internal leadership struggle.

Though Merkel may have grown up in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the CDU has never particularly been popular in the east. In the last state election in 2011, the CDU struggled too, but it was instead against Die Linke (The Left). In fact, the hard left is set to lose even more support from 2011 than the CDU. Five years ago, the CDU won 23.1% of the vote, a standard it might well replicate this year. But Die Linke is forecasted to win far less than the 18.4% it won in the 2011 election. There’s no doubt that the AfD poses a direct threat to the CDU, both in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and nationally because so many conservative Germans worry about the effects of resettling nearly a million Syrian refugees. But the AfD, especially in the east, seems to be taking votes from nationalist-minded voters on the left too, especially from Die Linke, a party with its roots in East Germany’s Soviet-era Communist Party.

Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton might find in German chancellor Angela Merkel a role model in the era of Trump (State Department)
Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton might find in German chancellor Angela Merkel a role model in the era of Trump (State Department)

In 2008, US president Barack Obama won the largest Democratic mandate in a generation, in part, by pledging to change the tone in Washington.USflag

But in 2016, after eight years of increasingly bitter and partisan posturing, it’s Obama’s one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, who now has the opportunity to transcend the hyper-partisanship that began with the divided government under her husband’s administration in the 1990s.

Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party laid bare the long-growing schism among various Republican constituencies. Currently, the two living former Republican presidents (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), the party’s most recent presidential nominee (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney), its one-time 2016 frontrunners (former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Florida senator Marco Rubio) and the Republican in the highest-ranking elected official — speaker of the House (Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan) — have all refused to endorse Trump.

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RELATED: That transcending ideology thing from 2008?
Merkel did it. Obama hasn’t.

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Despite the promise that the coming general election will be nasty, even by the recent standards of American politics, Clinton, if she’s nimble enough, can become a unifying and moderate figure who can work with both Republicans and Democrats. If Trump loses as badly as polls suggest he might, the Republican Party will be a shambles on November 8. The fight for Senate control was always a toss-up, and a Trump debacle could endanger even Republican control of the House of Representatives.

Increasingly, the debate in world politics is tilting away from traditional left-right discourses, replaced by a much darker fight, for the first time since the 1930s, between populist nationalism and globalist internationalism — and not just in the United States, but everywhere from the Philippines to the United Kingdom. In that fight, Ryan (and Bush and moderate Republicans) have much more in common with Clinton and the officials who will lead a Clinton administration than with Trump.

Make no mistake, if Clinton wins the presidency in November, she’s not going to form a German-style ‘grand coalition’ with Ryan and leading Republicans. Postwar German politics operates largely on consensus to a degree unknown in American (or even much of European) politics. Still, German chancellor Angela Merkel has already paved the way for how a successful Clinton presidency might unfold, and Clinton advisers would be smart to figure out, as the campaign unfolds, how to position Clinton as a kind of American ‘Mutti.’ Clinton is already reaching out to moderate Republican donors, but the challenge goes much deeper — to become a kind of acceptable figure to both blue-state and red-state America.

It’s not clear that Clinton has the same political skill to pull off in the United States what Merkel has done in Germany.

But it’s a rare opportunity, nonetheless, if she can.  Continue reading Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

Don’t risk overrating AfD’s rise in German state elections

Since taking over the Alternative for Germany party last year, Frauke Petry has steered it in a stridently anti-migrant direction. (Facebook)
Since taking over the Alternative for Germany party last year, Frauke Petry has steered it in a stridently anti-migrant direction. (Facebook)

It’s tempting to argue that results from three state elections in Germany on Sunday spell the beginning of the end for chancellor Angela Merkel.Germany Flag Icon

In all three states, the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) won representation for the first time at the state level. That means that the AfD’s parliamentary presence will rise to eight German state assemblies, with the party poised to enter the Bundestag in the next federal election (after narrowly missing the 5% electoral threshold in September 2013).

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RELATED: Kretschmann wins big in Germany’s prosperous south

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It’s not the first time that radical parties have made minor gains in elections. In the 1992 Baden-Württemberg state elections, the hard-right Die Republikaner (Republicans) won over 12% of the vote, making it the state’s third-largest party. Hard-right parties have routinely won a small share of the national vote, though never enough to enter the Bundestag. Former East German communists founded what is today the radical leftist flank of Die Linke (The Left) and, despite a quarter-century from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the party (certainly not as hard-left as it was in 1989) is still controversial.

It’s true that Merkel has taken a bold stand in welcoming refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, and that policy has left many German voters concerned that the rate of immigrants — over one million since the migration crisis swelled last summer — is more than Germany society can assimilate culturally, socially and economically.

It’s not an unfair concern, so it’s not surprising that the AfD’s popularity is rising. Since its creation in 2013 as a party of mildly eurosceptic academics, it has turned sharply right under a new more hardline leader, Frauke Petry, a 40-year-old chemist and businesswoman whose anti-migration rhetoric has attracted voters scared of the effects of so many new German refugees. The AfD’s turn was so hard that Bernd Lucke, one of the movement’s founders, quit the party last summer.

The migration crisis may have been the impetus for the AfD’s emergence, but it’s no surprise that a right-wing alternative to Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) is coming into view. She has become Germany’s most dominant politician in a generation by occupying virtually all of the ideological territory on the center-right and the center-left, leaving her right flank somewhat unprotected.

Hugging the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) into two grand coalitions since 2005, she’s shown a willingness to poach its most popular policies, including a raise in the German minimum wage. She’s been at the center of difficult battles to keep the European Union united, including last summer’s near-disastrous negotiations to keep Greece in the eurozone. The effect has been that more moderate voters have flocked to the CDU — so much so that she nearly won a remarkable absolute majority in the Bundestag in September 2013.

But it also means that voters who want change are turning not to the CDU’s junior coalition partner, the SPD, but to fringe groups, including the AfD. While the AfD’s gains are real, and they shouldn’t be ignored, neither should they be overstated. Far-right politics in Germany have existed for years, and while it’s true that the AfD clearly took votes from the CDU in Sunday’s state elections, it also appears that the AfD draws from far-left voters in eastern Germany and from disaffected SPD voters in western Germany.

The three states that held elections on March 13 couldn’t be more different, and it’s a risk to make blanket statements about the future of German politics through generalizing the results of Sunday’s elections.

Taking them one by one shows that, though the AfD risk is real, the electorate remains by far in favor of Merkel’s moderate approach to governance.  Continue reading Don’t risk overrating AfD’s rise in German state elections

Kretschmann wins big in Germany’s prosperous south

Germany's only Green minister-president, Winfried Kretschmann, has won widespread in conservative Baden-Württemberg. (Facebook)
Germany’s only Green minister-president, Winfried Kretschmann, has won widespread in conservative Baden-Württemberg. (Facebook)

The largest headline of Germany’s slate of state elections today will be the rising success of the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany).baden wuttermergGermany Flag Icon

But it really shouldn’t be.

Even at the height of anti-refugee sentiment, the AfD that won no more than 23% of the vote in any state, and it will not come close to holding power in any of those states.

Meanwhile, Winfried Kretschmann surged to what should almost certainly mean reelection as minister-president in Baden-Württemberg, a sprawling and prosperous state in southwestern Germany, home to 10.6 million people (Germany’s third-most populous). With a rich industrial heritage in and around Stuggart, the state is home to Daimler, Porsche and software manufacturer SAP, and it currently has Germany’s lowest unemployment rate (4.0%). 

Kretschmann came to office in 2011 through something of a fluke, when his party, Die Grünen (The Greens), narrowly outpaced its center-left coalition partner, the Sozialdemokratische  Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party). Together, the two parties managed to win more support than the center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), the party of Germany’s powerful chancellor Angela Merkel, and a party that had long dominated a thrifty state of southern German conservatism, ruling almost without interruption for 60 years. The SPD may have withered to the point where Kretschmann will need to find a new governing coalition. But in 2016, for the first time in the postwar period, the CDU wasn’t the first-placed party, falling behind the Greens. That’s due in part to the AfD’s rise, siphoning votes from the CDU, but it also has to do with the wildly popular Kretschmann. Continue reading Kretschmann wins big in Germany’s prosperous south

Has Germany (and Europe) reached peak Merkel?

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In the span of six days, German chancellor Angela Merkel has made a teenage Palestinian refugee cry with her government’s stand on refugee and immigration policy (then tried to pet her, in what must be one of her most cringe-worthy moments as chancellor), reiterated her increasingly isolated position in Europe in opposition to LGBT marriage equality and almost allowed her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to force Greece out of the eurozone, in the process undermining Merkel’s authority both at home and within the wider eurozone.Germany Flag Icon

Some week.

Merkel, who won a narrower-than-expected victory in the 2005 election, reached the apex of her political power in September 2013, when her governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) nearly won an absolute majority in the country’s parliamentary elections. Despite being forced back into a ‘grand coalition’ with the rival center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), Merkel’s popularity crested. At long last, she had won a clear personal mandate for her cautious, seemingly ideology-free leadership.

But when faced with policy issues — like Greece, LGBT rights and immigration — featuring such sharp contrasts, Merkel’s popularity was always going to fall from those stratospheric levels.

The crisis over Greece’s future highlighted the limits of Merkel’s conciliatory governing style — to sit back, wait for a consensus to emerge and follow public opinion, even (or especially) if it means co-opting a rival party’s positions. That’s how Merkel has handled everything from nuclear power to raising the minimum wage. But there’s a limit to that kind of governance. Continue reading Has Germany (and Europe) reached peak Merkel?

How Schäuble’s failures shape the eurozone fight

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble attends a German-Greek chamber of industry meeting in Athens, on July 18, 2013. Local authorities stepped up security in the capital for the visit, as Schaeuble is seen by some in Greece as a champion of the tough austerity policies that have gripped the country for the past four years. AFP PHOTO / Angelos TzortzinisPhoto credit to Angelos Tzortzinis /AFP.

Though it’s Yanis Varoufakis, the Marxist economist and recently deposed Greek finance minister, who is typically painted in the media as the drag on the long-running negotiations to avoid a Greek default and keep the country within the eurozone, his intransigence has been met at every step of the way by Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, whose sneering impatience for Greek demands has been no less personal than Varoufakis’s over-the-top denunciations of European ministerial colleagues as ‘terrorists.’Germany Flag Icon

Schäuble’s sharp-tongued wit has been a constant through five years of negotiations that stretch back long before prime minister Alexis Tsipras and the far-left SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left) took power in January. On Thursday, Schäuble joked to an increasingly concerned US treasury secretary Jack Lew that he would be willing to swap Europe’s Greece troubles for Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

When it comes to Greece, Schäuble is in many ways Germany’s opposition leader, even though he’s a stalwart of chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party). He’s made it clear throughout the course of negotiations that he favors pushing Greece out of the eurozone, a result that other European leaders worry could destroy the single currency’s credibility — not to mention plunge Greece into an even more painful depression. Back in 2011 and 2012, few German politicians — just a handful of grey-haired Bavarian conservatives — were willing to call for Greece’s eurozone exit. Today, however, it’s a mainstream position, even on the center-left.

Germany is currently governed through a ‘grand coalition’ between the center-right CDU and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) that includes around 80% of the entire Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament. Nevertheless, Merkel is limited in her maneuverability — if she gives too much to Greece, there’s a chance Schäuble could lead a revolt of CDU backbenchers who already worry Merkel has transformed the party into a political amoeba that sways to the path of political expediency.

As Tsipras and his new finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos wait for Greece’s creditors to evaluation the government’s probable last proposal for debt relief, there’s a lot that lies in Schäuble’s hands. Even as French president François Hollande has directed his entire economic leadership — prime minister Manuel Valls, finance minister Michel Sapin and economic minister Emmanuel Macron — to help save Greece’s place in the eurozone, German doubts about the deal, a three-year bailout of over €50 billion, could still derail Saturday’s deadline. A full summit of the European Union’s leaders has been scheduled for Sunday. With banks running out of money and Greece banks nearing insolvency, European leaders have made it clear that if they don’t reach a deal with Tsipras on Saturday, they will spend Sunday addressing how Greece will exit the single currency.

Germany, as the largest member-state, is the largest contribution to any stability funding that comes from the European Commission and/or the European Central Bank. It’s currently on the hook for around €90 billion of Greece’s €5320 billion public debt. Merkel, despite doubts in her own party, has supported Greece’s two bailouts in the past, though she’s done so by demanding harsh strings that satisfy her own conservative flank and, of course, German taxpayers, who are ultimately on the hook for nearly one-third of Greece’s bailout debt.

Back in 2010, with a nod to moral hazard, Merkel cruelly told then-prime minister George Papandreou that she had to make the bailout as difficult as possible:

Mr. Papandreou says that when he asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for gentler conditions in 2010, she replied that the aid program had to hurt. “We want to make sure nobody else will want this,” Ms. Merkel told him.

In principle, it was Merkel’s nod toward moral hazard — she couldn’t give the Greeks terms that Spain, Italy, Ireland, Portugal or the Baltic states might soon want. But in practice, it was a sop to the German right, which was growing ever more disgusted at consecutive Greek governments, which haven’t had the strongest reform record.

But Schäuble makes Merkel look relatively welcoming. The 72-year-old finance minister, according to reports, apparently asked Greek negotiators how much money it would take to get them to leave the eurozone. Continue reading How Schäuble’s failures shape the eurozone fight

Photo of the day: The hills are alive with the sound of Merkel

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It’s the most important trans-Atlantic politics meme since that time US president Barack Obama took a selfie with British prime minister David Cameron and Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.Germany Flag Icon

A throwback to The Sound of Music, yes, as the leaders of the G7 (just when we’d gotten used to G8) gathered at Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps to consider the risks to the global economy — most notably, the risks from Russia’s continued mayhem in Ukraine and its growing isolation in the rest of the world. Greece, too, is high on the agenda, with time running out for the beleaguered country to make a deal with its European and IMF creditors.

It’s disappointing, however, that Obama’s first beer in the country was non-alcoholic. (Hint, Mr. President: You’re doing it wrong).

The real question: how would Julie Andrews tackle Russian president Vladimir Putin, or ISIS, or the fallout from a potential Greek fall from the eurozone, or US-EU free trade? Or climate change? That high-profile conference in Paris is only five months away…

Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top

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Part of the undeniable appeal of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign is her push to become the first woman to lead the United States, enhanced by the fact that she aims to succeed the first African-American president.USflag

But, if elected, Clinton will be far from the only powerful woman on the world stage.

If she wins the November 2016 presidential race, she’ll join a list of world leaders that includes German president Angela Merkel, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.

What’s more, there’s never been a better moment for women leading their countries. Assuming that Clinton wins the presidency in 2016 and serves two terms, it’s not inconceivable that she’d lead the United States at a time of ‘peak’ female leadership. But nowhere is that more true than in Europe. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that each of the six largest member-states of the European Union could have women in charge during a potential Clinton administration.

Here’s who they are — and how they might rise to power. Continue reading Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top

As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal

schaublePhoto credit to Bloomberg News.

If you want to know which side ‘thinks it won’ in today’s temporary deal between Greece and the Eurogroup, you need look no further than the extraordinary statement from German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who essentially spiked the ball in Greece’s face after winning a key concession from its new anti-austerity government that it would honor existing Greek commitments to its creditors in exchange for a four-month extension of its bailout program:Greece Flag Icon

“Being in government is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream,” the conservative veteran said, stressing Athens would get no aid payments until its bailout program was properly completed. “The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters.”

Even if you think the Greek government had little leverage to force the Eurogroup to accept its demands and even if you think today’s temporary deal is at least a step on the path to a stronger Greece within the eurozone, I can’t think of a statement from any European leader more at odds with reality and basic political acumen since the out-of-touch musings of former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 2004 and 2005, when he was in charge of the process to enact a constitution for the European Union, a process that died when France itself rejected the constitution in a referendum.

It’s as if Schäuble (pictured above with Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis) actively wants to feed the notion that Germany dominates European policymaking. His comments might play well in Munich or Stuttgart, but they’ll be poisonous in Madrid and Athens, and cause some amount of indignation in capitals like Paris and Dublin. 

Imagine a different response, whereby German chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a statement that, even while holding steady against concessions to the Greek government, acknowledged Greece’s economic suffering and acknowledged that the Berlin-led bailouts have caused more harm than anticipated — an admission, by the way, that the International Monetary Fund was already making years ago.

A German Europe, and a divided Europe

Greece is in a depression that’s now lasted six years and runs deeper than the Great Depression of the 1930s in either Europe or the United States. Unemployment is rife in Spain, so much so that an untested anti-austerity group, Podemos, now leads polls for the general election later this year. Italy, for now, has placed its trust in its young Tuscan prime minister Matteo Renzi, who seems to have far more commitment to reform than ability to carry it out. Romania and Bulgaria, despite responsible budget policies, are being hollowed out by depopulation and migration to wealthier EU countries.

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RELATED: What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

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Europe’s best and brightest are leaving economically depressed regions and countries, and they’re heading to London. To Amsterdam. To Frankfurt. That’s left national governments responsible for fiscal commitments to social welfare, education and health care. While its most ambitious citizens look abroad for careers, these national governments find their revenues shrinking and their obligations increasing. Continue reading As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal

AfD, FDP thrive in Hamburg state elections

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It’s a slow election year in Germany, so there will be few tests at the state level for chancellor Angela Merkel, her center-left ‘grand coalition’ partners or any of the various challengers to Merkel’s hold on German centrism.hamburgGermany Flag Icon

That makes the results from Sunday’s election in Hamburg, a city-state in the German north, perhaps more important than they otherwise would be, and it’s not great news for Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), which won just one-third as much support as its center-left rival (and partner in federal government), the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).

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RELATED: Thuringia and Brandenburg election results —
Left, AfD on the rise

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The CDU and the SPD continue to be the largest of Germany’s political parties and, notwithstanding the fact that they have joined together in the second ‘grand coalition’ in 10 years, the two parties fight fiercely at the state level and will contest Germany’s next national elections later this decade. Nevertheless, it wasn’t unexpected that the SPD, under the leadership of Hamburg first mayor Olaf Scholz (pictured above), would easily win the election. Though the SPD lost four seats, enough to deprive it of its absolute majority, Scholz will almost certainly form the next government, likely with Die Grünen (the Greens).

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The troubling aspect for the CDU isn’t that it did so poorly in Hamburg, which has traditionally leaned toward the SPD, but that it seems to be losing voters to more right-wing alternatives, including the mildly eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), which actively advocates that Greece and other countries leave the eurozone. It’s the four state where the AfD has now surpassed the minimal threshold to win seats in the state parliament/assembly.  Continue reading AfD, FDP thrive in Hamburg state elections