August 26, 2012
Angela Merkel has for a second year in a row been chosen as the world’s most powerful woman by the Forbes magazine. Surely then, being Angela Merkel would be every woman’s dream. Yet, the reality would not be further away.
Despite all her efforts during the past two years to stave off a full-blown euro crisis, she is the target of venomous attacks from within Germany, its Eurozone partners and indeed countries outside Europe who fear that would have much to lose by the break-up of the Eurozone.
She has committed unprecedented amounts of German taxpayer’s money to shore up the finances of troubled Eurozone economies, most notably Greece. In return, she is the target of a regular bashing from politicians, media and experts alike and more than once has been depicted as a re-incarnation of Nazi Germany wishing to establish a Fourth Reich. Even in the UK, which is outside the Eurozone and has a tradition for ‘sober’ journalism (at least amongst its serious media outlets), she has been termed Europe’s most dangerous politicians by the New Statesman magazine and likened to the Terminator.
Unfortunately for her, troubles don’t stop abroad. At home, she is increasingly finding it difficult to defend her choices and is seen by main citizens, economists and even MP’s of her own coalition as too indecisive and soft on Germany’s ‘irresponsible’ Eurozone partners, ultimately being accused of not doing enough to protect Germany’s interest.
So, how will history judge the already controversial Ms. Merkel?
Surely, any comparison to Nazi Germany and dreams of establishing a new German empire with the euro as a ‘weapon’ should be dismissed as utter non-sense. Ms. Merkel’s main problem is that, while elected to run Germany, she finds herself, de facto, responsible for the management and survival of the Eurozone. Faced with this unprecedented scenario (which nobody had foreseen), she has tried her best to glue together solutions that prevent a break-up of the euro, while guaranteeing that German tax-payer’s money will be put to good use.
Having said this, Ms. Merkel is certainly not beyond criticism. In the opinion of this columnist, her biggest failing has been a moral one. For all her efforts and good intentions to save the euro, her decisions have always been dictated by a domestic agenda, whose ultimate concern has been to ensure that her (and her party’s) chances of electoral success are not jeopardized by the Eurozone bailouts.
Ms. Merkel can at best be described as a reluctant European. Whenever she has acted, she has done only at the last minute in order to stave off a meltdown. At the same time, she has always subjugated any Eurozone solution to domestic considerations, aimed at convincing a sceptical domestic audience that, when it comes to defending German interests, she stands strong.
The case of Greece offers the clearest example of this. It is now clear that 1st Greek bailout package had no real chance of success. The combination of steep spending cuts, high taxes coupled with the a very limited adjustment period, high interest rates and the impossibility of a haircut meant the programme was pretty much doomed from the start. Anyone familiar with the history of the IMF’s interventions knows that they have always been extremely painful in the short-run for ordinary citizens. It is perhaps then all the more telling that it was this same institution which insisted on a longer adjustment period, lower interest rates and a haircut of existing a debts as a necessary condition for the programme’s success. These demands were, however, rejected by Ms. Merkel whose party at the time was facing an important regional election in the populous German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
This mix of last minute economic pragmatism and domestic tacticism is, however, leading nowhere. On the one hand, it is causing extreme hardship and bitterness in the Southern countries, whose citizens see their sacrifices being ‘rewarded’ by what seems like never ending stream of further spending cuts and higher taxes; and on the other, citizens of the creditor nations are growing increasingly weary of committing money to what is starting to seem like a bottomless barrel. In brief, it is hurting a lot, it is costing a lot and yet, it still leaves the main problems largely un-resolved.
But could Ms. Merkel have done otherwise? The answer is simply yes. For all her procrastinating during the past two years, she has shown a remarked readiness to take the necessary action (often rescinding previous pledges) when confronted with the possibility of a euro meltdown. And more than two years into the crisis, some sort of debt mutualisation (the ultimate red line) is now being openly contemplated.
Which goes to say that she has probably been well aware of the limitations of her policy but has, at the same time, simply been reluctant to bear the political cost of telling the truth to German taxpayers from the very start: that some sort of mutualisation of debt (implying higher interests) is needed if Germany wishes to preserve the euro and ultimately its own prosperity. Nevertheless, she has time and again refrained from doing so, choosing instead to boost her electoral chances by playing the domestic card. And in doing so, she has ultimately chosen to put her own (and her party’s) interest above those of million of European citizens in Europe’s periphery.
But wait a minute! Why on earth should Ms Merkel be held morally responsible for the well being of citizens of other countries over which she has neither any legal authority, nor is not answerable to?
Legally speaking, she of course has done nothing wrong. But at the same time, what is legally correct is not necessarily morally just. Moreover, while it may not be fair, human beings are often confronted with ethical choices which they do not choose by their own free will but are rather forced upon them. To this, we can add that confronted with ethical choices, we are of course, free to choose are own path, yet the outcome of our action from an ethical standpoint is often pre-determined. For example, if we have a choice between buying a pack of cigarettes for our own pleasure or giving that money to someone in need, is of course our own choice what we do. But few would deny that helping someone, instead of buying the cigarettes, would be the morally correct thing to do.
Back to our topic of the day, circumstances forced upon Ms. Merkel at the beginning of 2010 a stark political dilemma which be summarised as follows:
- Push for a holistic solution to the Eurozone which would have involved some sort of debt mutualisation, which while the right thing to do, would probably have cost her dearly in terms of popularity in the short-run
- Court to the domestic political necessities, while making sure that when, push comes to shove, economic necessity, i.e. the euro survival would prevail.
We all know what path she opted for, which is what most politicians would have done in her position. Yet, grand projects often require that leaders look beyond the short-term interest and embrace something greater. Which allows me to finish with the following question for the readers of this column: would the EU have ever come into existence if back in 1950, instead of Robert-Schuman, we had Ms. Merkel?Author : Konstandinos Diamandouros