Is Angela Merkel invulnerable?
by Anja Maier
The German Chancellor is prepared to push through a third aid package for Athens. The parlamentary opposition accuses her of wanting to help the Greek banks, not its citizens.
„The suffering of Merkel” was the Bild-Zeitung‘s headline at the beginning of this week. These leading specialists in Greek-baiting threw some caustic empathy in the Chancellor’s direction. „State bankruptcy! Unthinkable in the ‚European-party’ CDU!” claimed the accompanying article. And the taz headline read, „If the euro fails, Merkel fails.” Is that the case? At the moment, it seems that even this crisis will leave Merkel — the European politician par excellence — looking stronger than before.
Having said that, the quick succession of political events has been alarming. Since the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stated that his citizens should vote in a referendum on what he considers an unacceptable offer, Angela Merkel has seemed to be at a loss. Her helplessness did not diminish when Greece defaulted on its repayments on Tuesday night, leaving the Greeks without an offer to vote on. Helplessness is a state we have not seen the Chancellor in to date. And before the results from Athens arrive on Sunday, crisis diplomacy is running at full speed behind the scenes.
In the meantime, Merkel has to make sure that the Grand Coalition agrees to all the wounds that are still to be inflicted on it.
Her way of doing this was by holding a speech in the Bundestag on Wednesday. And by holding a joint press conference, like the one on Monday, with Sigmar Gabriel, and thereby making her coalition partner jointly responsible. And by approaching the factions in the Bundestag, and explaining the trickiness of the situation.
She clearly has no plan to present. This much is clear: it is crucial for Greece to stay in the euro, as the risk of contagion would be immense for the whole of Europe if a Grexit takes place. Greece is already in a currency crisis: the air on the stock exchanges is poisonous.
„This is the absolute worst-case scenario for Merkel,” says Frank Schäffler. Up till 2013, he was an FDP MP in the Bundestag. His sharp criticism of the euro aid package in 2010 put Schäffler in the spotlight. The CDU was simply not used to being contradicted by its coalition partner at the time. In 2012, Schäffler foisted a petition onto his FDP party members. He was a successful pest.
Today Schäffler runs a eurosceptical think tank. In response to the question how it feels to have been right in the end, the 46-year-old answers: „Yes, it’s true that I was right. But I never envisioned how dramatic things would become.” Nonetheless, he doesn’t believe that Merkel, whom he criticised at the time, will be damaged by events. It’s likely that she will try and impose the crisis on the SPD, so that she can portray herself as the pragmatic negotiator. Frank Schäffler is convinced: „She’ll come off unscathed in Germany. She has a reputation for being a woman of action.”
Dissenters are not her problem
For days now, Angela Merkels’s mantra has been: „Solidarity and individual responsibility.” The German government will stick together, is what this means, but not unconditionally. Merkel’s message, which she has repeated umpteen times, is directed at Athens. Here, in the Bundestag on Wednesday, she doesn’t really have to convince her faction and coalitions partners that the affair isn’t over yet. In her speech, she said: „We will now wait for the referendum, Before then, no new aid package will be negotiated.”
So it’s official: Merkel is prepared to push through a „new” third aid package for Greece. The dissenters from her own ranks — and there are dozens of them — are not the problem. But her voters might be. A general election is coming up in two years. It’s highly likely that Merkel will stand again as candidate. It is therefore necessary with all means possible to prevent voters associating the failure of the euro, probably even tangible financial cuts, with the CDU in 2017.
For this reason, the slogan that she is circulating in the Bundestag is: „Europe has become more robust.” It even grows during its crises. The SPD Vice Chancellor stood by her in his speech. „Solidarity should never be mistaken for chumminess,“ says Sigmar Gabriel, „instead, it’s responsible action, for oneself and others.” And there it is again, the finger pointing toward Athens.
Contradiction stems from FDP. The Liberals, praised by the Chancellor at the last CDU party conference as „natural coalition partners”, are now flexing their muscles as eurosceptics. Merkel, as FDP General Secretary Nicola Beer said to the taz, waited too long for Tsipras to come round. „That’s why she is partially responsible for this chaos. An explosion not only awaits Europe, but also the Grand Coalition.” It’s likely that the FDP will gain popularity precisely due to its criticism of the euro and Merkel.
Is Merkel invulnerable? At the moment she appears not to have been harmed as the sober caretaker. It is palpable that she is at peace with herself and to her decision not to pursue further talks in Athens. Even during these hard-core days, she apparently sleeps well. At the peak of the Ukraine crisis, she looked more hassled than now.
Merkel damaged? Lutz Meyer waves the suggestion away. The PR man, who managed her election campaign in 2013, says that those who claim this should explain why. „The euro will stay, Europe won’t fail, and Germany is synonymous with the principle of serious financial management.” Perhaps Greece should never have been accepted into the euro zone. „But that was a decision made by Schröder’s government, not Frau Merkel.”
Violent attacks from the left
In the Bundestag on Wednesday, recriminations were nevertheless made. Gregor Gysi, Faction Leader of Die Linke, launched a violent attack on the Chancellor. „The way you praise yourself is completely disgraceful,” he called out to Merkel. Troika’s aid packages had only helped the Greek banks, not its citizens. „One soup kitchen after the other — is that your vision of Europe? Your complicity in this is huge.” At bottom, he said, Merkel was interested in destroying the left-wing government in Athens. Angry protests from the CDU ranks promptly followed. It was visible and audible to all that this faction will follow Merkel everywhere.
Translation: Lucy Renner Jones