Berlin is the de facto capital of Europe today, and it would be easy to imagine it becoming the most important place in the world.
As the political centre of the most economically important and politically influential country in the world’s largest single economy (even after it loses Britain), all European roads lead through Berlin. As the capital uniquely capable of making agreements that shape lives and destinies in Russia, Turkey and large parts of Africa and Asia, in a way that Washington is no longer able, Berlin’s leadership is uniquely capable of putting much of the world on a new course.
Yet that is not how anybody could describe Berlin today. In the half year I’ve lived in this surprisingly sleepy political hub, I’ve heard it described, even by some federal cabinet ministers, as being in “aimless limbo” or “on pause” or “sleepwalking,” and most frequently as simply a place that’s endlessly waiting for the right moment – a moment its most powerful current resident, Chancellor Angela Merkel, is endlessly deferring.
Her latest act of deferment might last a long time. Wednesday saw the announcement by Ms. Merkel’s chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, that she would not run for chancellor in the federal election looming in September, 2021, and would be stepping down as party chairwoman this year. That immediately triggered a fierce competition for the leadership of Ms. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, which will not be resolved for at least three months, and probably until the end of the year – at which point it will be an election campaign.
In the 14 years since I first watched Ms. Merkel in action in Berlin, there have been two very consistent patterns of behaviour. The first is that she seeks stability, in government and in her country, above all else – often to the point of inaction. The other is that she will never do anything bold or risky if there is an important election coming up – even, say, a symbolically interesting vote in some minor state such as Schleswig-Holstein.
For the next year and a half, the consensus view is that there will remain a Merkel-sized hole in the centre of Europe, and the era of Late Merkelism will not be marked with bold, nothing-to-lose German actions on the world stage – but rather, a sort of listless, waiting-room vibe.
To her supporters, to much of the German electorate, and to conservative observers around the world, her extreme caution has been an asset.
It has kept the country extremely prosperous, though in good part by keeping its working citizens less than fully prosperous. It has protected Germany from the extremism and intolerance that have poisoned other European governments (the error that finally unseated the error-prone Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer was her slow response to a crisis in the state of Thuringia, which allowed an extreme-right party to wield some political influence in a government). It has pioneered a form of grand-coalition politics that allows a party of the right to adopt the most popular positions from the left, and thus attract a very wide electorate over many years.
Because of that caution, though, Europe remains a disordered place that could teeter into crisis again at any moment, in several areas where Berlin could help build a strong defence.
As long as the euro is the currency of 19 countries, every informed observer agrees that there needs to be a unified fiscal policy and a common continental economic governance – a de facto European finance ministry – to avoid the sort of monetary crisis that paralyzed the continent for half a decade after 2008. That can only happen with Germany’s leadership, but Ms. Merkel, who compounded the crisis with years of inaction a decade ago, has now both shunned French President Emmanuel Macron’s European-reform plan and avoided pushing her own.
Likewise, to avoid a repeat of the 2015-16 migration crisis and recurring humanitarian disasters, there needs to be a Europe-wide immigration, asylum and return policy, probably involving a common border police and coast guard. Germany would be crucial to this, yet it has remained unfinished business for two decades.
Russia’s threat to elections and democracy remains unchecked and its invasion of Ukraine unpunished because Germany continues to avoid the toughest sanctions and has chosen not to use the Nord Stream 2 gas-pipeline negotiations to extract concessions from Moscow. Ms. Merkel has taken a tougher stand toward Vladimir Putin, but has avoided decisive action.
While Ms. Merkel did recently attempt to negotiate a peace deal in Libya, on other big international crises – from the war in Syria to the ugly showdowns with China – her role has largely been to protect Germany’s immediate interests.
Ms. Merkel’s successor could well be a more conservative figure who would make Berlin even more inward-looking and inactive on the world stage. What is needed instead is a leader, or a circumstance, that will turn this de facto capital into a place that the rest of the world goes to find solutions – a place where things actually happen.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin