Merkel shows she’s in charge in Europe

By Dale R. Herspring

After watching Russian President Vladimir Putin take charge of the Syrian affair, it is worth noting that he has met his match in German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She and her party defeated other parties in a presidential election September 22.

Germany has a multi-party system, and what was astounding was that Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Socialists Union (CSU — present only in Bavaria, where the CDU does not compete in elections), won 41.5 percent of the vote. This left the two parties five seats short of a majority.

I’m not suggesting that Merkel does not face problems, especially on the domestic front.  She needs a partner to control the Bundestag, the country’s parliament. She needs a partner because the Free Democrats obtained only 4.8 percent of the vote. In Germany, a party must receive at least 5 percent of the vote to have seats in the parliament. The result is that the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD), who came in second with 27 percent of the vote are in talks. The SPD’s showing was its worst since World War II.  Many in the SPD are concerned that the party will end up losing its identity in a coalition with the CDU/CSU.  As for the other parties, all of them are too far to the left for the more conservative Christian Demo-crats.

A key issue in the negotiations is who from what party will get which ministries. Another is the direction the new government will head. For example, the SPD favors a national minimum wage and an increase in taxes on the very rich. This would not be the first time Germany has had a a major coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD. There was one from 2005 to 2009. However many in the SPD feel they were hurt by what one writer called “Merkel’s deadly embrace.”

On international issues, some had hoped if the more accommodating SPD entered the government, Merkel’s approach to members of the European Union would soften. Her initial comments after the election suggest otherwise. She said her European policy would continue “in the same spirit as before.” Merkel will continue to take a hard line toward dealing with countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy that have ailing economies. The German public is tired of paying money to counties they think are lazy and are not making the kind of structural changes Germany made. 

With regard to Russia,  Merkel is stronger when it comes to dealing with Putin than has been the case with President Barack Obama. Among other reasons, she is backed up by the strongest economy in Europe.  The Germans several years ago made the internal structural reforms that are now needed throughout Europe. 

Merkel also does not make empty threats. She has been vocal in criticizing human rights violations in Russia and the lack of political reforms in Greece.  Greece depends on German largesse, and Russia’s is Germany’s closest ally in Eur-ope.  Both of the latter countries have large economies and need each other. During her election campaign, Merkel spoke of “neighborly” relations with the Kremlin and called for a new partnership between the EU and Russia.  She even spoke of creating a visa-free program for students in Russia and the EU. It is important to keep in mind that because of her power inside the EU, she has tremendous power to get things done.  Moscow would be crazy to ignore her if it hopes to have any impact on the EU.  She is the key that opens or closes the door.

If she continues her current approach toward the Kremlin, she will be outspoken on internal developments in Russia.  Her domestic audience expects her to take the lead on such issues. As one Russian scholar noted, “Merkel will probably continue to criticize Putin on human rights, but that will not lead to any dramatic decline in relations.” There is no need to improve political relationships in order to get business moving.  Business relations are already strong and will likely get stronger over the next four years of Merkel’s chancellorship. The only thing that could undermine business relations is the ever-present corruption that pervades Russian life.

Merkel’s continued success is not guaranteed. There is a danger of a Eurocrisis, which could put more pressure on the Germans to bail out more countries or soften an economic crisis. One thing that remains true is that Merkel will continue to be the strongest voice in Eur-ope. Putin is not stupid; he understands the critical role Germany plays in Europe and in Russian foreign policy.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of Council on Foreign Relations and a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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