So the German people have spoken, and the European Union will continue to be a tortoise. Next May, following elections to the European Parliament, we will discover just how slow and unhappy a creature it is. Then, across the next decade, a larger, Aesop-worthy question will be posed: Can the tortoise somehow outpace the American eagle and the Chinese dragon? Or will it at least keep up with them?
Resounding though “Mutti” (mom) Merkel’s election victory was, Germany’s new government still has to be formed. In the Federal Republic, such coalition talks traditionally happen at the pace, and with all the grace, of tortoises mating. Assuming the result is a so-called “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, there should be a small but desirable adjustment in Germany’s policy toward the euro zone.
On Monday, Angela Merkel suggested that there would be no change in her approach to a southern Europe traumatized by debt, austerity and depression (economically and psychologically). Referring to the impressive way in which Germany managed down its own unit labour costs and restored its competitiveness, she said: “What we have done, everyone else can do.”
The Social Democrats understand a little better, or perhaps just express more frankly, that the economics of euro-zone recovery are not that simple. And since most German voters don’t want to pay another cent for allegedly feckless southerners, those euro-zone policy adjustments will be modest.
At best, the underbelly of the tortoise – debt and depression-ridden southern Europe – will continue to bleed. At worst, it will hemorrhage, politically as well as economically. As Costas Douzinas noted in the Guardian recently, the Greek economy has shrunk by 25 per cent, youth unemployment is hovering at 70 per cent and the national debt-to-GDP ratio is approaching 175 per cent. In Greece, more social misery and political extremism seem inevitable.
In the German election, the political centre held. In next May’s 28-country elections to the European Parliament, that is less likely. Representatives of protest parties of all shapes and colours – from Greece’s fascist Golden Dawn to England’s UK Independence Party, from the partly post-Communist The Left in Germany to Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands – might fill those seats in Brussels. If this happens, the European Parliament will become a glass house full of people throwing stones. Yet that fragmentation will also compel the mainstream, pan-European alliances of conservative, liberal and socialist parties to work more closely together, thus producing a kind of implicit grand coalition in the Brussels parliament, as well as (probably) an explicit grand coalition in the Berlin one.
At the same time, Ms. Merkel will be even more inclined than she is already to run the European show by pragmatic intergovernmental deal-making, whether in the euro zone of 18 states (now that Latvia has adopted the euro) or the EU of 28 (now that Croatia has joined the larger club). But Ms. Merkel’s problem is that she does not have a strategic partner in either of the other two leading powers of the EU.
France’s François Hollande is the Little President Who Would – but his country is weakened by its own domestic economic problems and slowness to reform. Britain’s David Cameron, with a stable coalition government and a slowly recovering, north-European free market economy, could in theory be that partner. In practice, his euroskeptic Conservative party and his own miscalculations have launched him on a foolish course of attempted “renegotiation” of the terms of Britain’s membership in the EU. In short, Britain could, but won’t; France would, but can’t. That leaves Ms. Merkel as Europe’s single Mutti.
So there you have the EU for the foreseeable future: a giant, weary tortoise, with Chancellor Merkel sitting astride its shell, trying to steer its woozy head and coax its bleeding underbelly across stony ground. But then, there’s the state of the competition – the eagle and the dragon. After all, in Aesop’s fable, it was as much the hare that lost, as it was the tortoise that won.
America’s partisan style of politics is the diametric opposite of Germany’s centrist, consensual, coalition-building democracy. Washington is engulfed in shrieking brinkmanship, with Republicans threatening not to lift the country’s national debt ceiling unless that ghastly European-style Obamacare can be brought down. While the private sector is recovering some of its legendary dynamism, the U.S. still faces deep problems of imperial and welfare overstretch, and neglected infrastructure.
And rising China? The failure of President Xi Jinping’s new administration to show any signs of political reform makes a deeper crisis in that country ever more probable during the next decade.
In short, the world’s three giant economies all have substantial political problems, of strikingly different kinds. The tortoise won’t gather speed any time soon, but neither is it likely to take a big fall. Can we say the same of the eagle and the dragon?
Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
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