In the Centre of the Centre

Thomas Meaney writes about Angela Merkel’s kingdom

Despite her knack for deflating expectations and puncturing enthusiasms, Angela Merkel does not entirely disappoint on the campaign trail. In Grünheide, a small town in the Spreewald near Berlin, she came to christen a new training complex for Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Team Deutschland snapped into position when Merkel arrived. She made a face when she was asked to take off her shoes before stepping on the mats. She approached a young man doing flips on the parallel bars and made a mock show of fear of being fallen on. She posed for photos, shook hands, and brushed the gym chalk off her jacket as she made her way to the Sommerfest outside. We sang ‘Happy birthday, Frau Chancellor’ as she endured on the podium. Then she addressed the small gathering. ‘I can see that the money here has been well invested,’ she said. ‘Were you an athlete in your youth, Frau Chancellor?’ the master of ceremonies asked. ‘I did some kayaking,’ Merkel said. ‘There is a nice hotel in my district where you can go kayaking, a very nice place you can stay.’ She caught herself and smiled at this weak stab at PR. Merkel may be the only remaining major politician in the West with a capacity for irony: she often seems to be suppressing an inward smile. The audience appeared eager that she leave the stage so they could hear from the gold-medal kayaker. Only when Merkel walked across the grass and boarded the helicopter that would take her back to Berlin was it evident that this was a politician of more than local standing. No mention had been made of the coming election, much less any challenger. When the German media complains that Merkel doesn’t bother to campaign, she makes a face, as if to say: ‘Why would I?’

The centre isn’t merely holding in Germany; it is growing beyond all proportion. In the past year or so Germans have witnessed the implosion of established parties in France, backfiring plebiscites in the UK and Italy, ethno-nationalist entrenchment on Germany’s eastern perimeter, the presence of far-right parties in every Scandinavian parliament save Denmark, a proliferation of the right in the Netherlands, a brush with fascism in Austria, and an American president who sows doubts even among the most hardened Atlanticists. But the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), newly deputised as the guardian of the liberal West, appears to be coasting to electoral triumph. Merkel’s party hasn’t only performed better than expected in the three regional elections leading up to the Bundestag elections on 24 September, but has swept up some of the strongholds of the Social Democrats (SPD). The other major parties, with the exception of the ostracised Die Linke, are part of ‘System M’: Merkel picks what she pleases from their party platforms. In 2011, she quite literally took the wind out of the Greens when she used the Fukushima disaster to transform herself overnight into a nuclear-power sceptic; the same year she fulfilled the Liberals’ long deferred desire to do away with military service. Earlier this year, she allowed parliament to vote for same-sex marriage, further disarming her critics on the centre-left.

Whenever she finds the pressure from the right in her own ranks too great to withstand, Merkel deploys the rhetoric, in a softer register, of the new far-right upstart party, Alternative für Deutschland. Otherwise, she prefers euphemism: detention centres and refugee holding cells in Africa are referred to as ways of ‘caring’ and ‘working together’. There is a widespread notion that Merkel’s success is owed to her having inched a historically conservative party leftward – a reversal of Clinton and Blair’s move to the right – yet almost all her moves to modernise the CDU have been supported by German business and industry, and have advanced the neoliberal agenda of her Social Democrat predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, who set a course to keep German workers’ wages low enough to fuel an export boom and trade surplus, while limiting the length of time claimants could receive unemployment benefits. The Social Democrats, who lost to Merkel in 2005 after a split in their own ranks precipitated by Schröder’s welfare reforms, are now in the unenviable position of running against a politician they not only cleared the way for, but with whom they have governed in a grand coalition for the past four years. In the past, Merkel has reportedly become wary when her own party has risen too high in the polls; she may well prefer to share power with the Social Democrats. They help keep her in the centre of the centre.

Merkel’s main challenger, Martin Schulz of the SPD, still seems buoyant – though at this point it appears more likely he will take his place in a future Merkel ministry than become her successor. There was a brief moment earlier this year when the SPD drummed up ‘Martin Mania’ in a race sorely lacking colour (‘Woman without qualities versus man without a profile,’ is how the conservative monthly Cicero put it). Schulz has tried to talk up his biography: a promising football player in his youth, he thought he would become a star, but suffered a knee injury and became an alcoholic; after rehab he ran a bookstore in a small town in the Rhineland, eventually becoming mayor. The real irregularity in his political ascent, though, was that he pursued it not on the national stage, but in Brussels, where, during a twenty-year stint, he served first as a member of the European Parliament and then as its president.

It would be hard to overstate the feebleness of Schulz’s campaign. At first it focused on scaling back Germany’s increasing social and economic inequality: Schulz mumbled about revisiting elements of Schröder’s labour reforms. When the SPD failed to gain in the polls, Schulz became enamoured of Jupiter across the Rhine. He tried to Macronise himself by occupying the ‘dynamic’ centre – despite the fact that Merkel already occupied that ground. The campaign programmes for the two parties came to mirror each other, as they both toggled between the issues of ‘full employment’ and ‘security’ (though ‘full employment’ no longer means what it used to in an economy dependent on precarious labour). ‘For a Germany in which we live happily and gladly’ reads the caption below Merkel’s face on posters across the country while the SPD is betting on Merkel-fatigue: ‘Time for Martin Schulz’. The two parties, along with the mainstream press, seem to have tacitly agreed not to discuss some of the most important political questions facing the country. Climate change, housing policy, Brexit, increasing poverty, the rise of right-wing terrorism: none of these was mentioned in the TV ‘duel’ between Merkel and Schulz in the first week of September, though the question of putting tolls on the autobahns was thoroughly gone into. The candidates’ overlapping perspectives made Schulz’s occasional barbs seem merely performative. Anyone dreaming of another Red-Red-Green coalition, this time at federal level, will have been disappointed in Schulz, who continues to oscillate between attacking Merkel and applying for a role in another grand coalition.

At a point of especially acute electoral desperation in July, Schulz succumbed to the temptation to revive German fears of refugees. The one issue on which Merkel is still thought to be vulnerable is her handling of the arrival of more than a million refugees in 2015. But the more damaging critics of her refugee policies have always been closer to home. Wolfgang Schäuble, her finance minister, who might well have been chancellor in Merkel’s place had he not taken part in a CDU donations scandal involving an arms dealer in the 1990s, publicly rebuked her for temporarily opening the German border on 4 September 2015: ‘Avalanches can be triggered by any careless skier hitting the slopes and moving a little snow,’ he said. She also has to put up with the coarser figure of Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU). The CSU is a critical element in the CDU’s national success: a virtual political aristocracy in Bavaria, where it has enjoyed electoral dominance with little respite since 1946, it guarantees Merkel support in Germany’s second richest state. The nuisance for Merkel is that Seehofer, while less popular than she is even within his own party – the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung called him ‘Crazy Horst’ – has aired the possibility of withdrawing support for her, and habitually demands right-wing concessions, especially as they pertain to refugees.

Thanks to the journalist Robin Alexander’s Die Getriebenen: Merkel und die Flüchtlingspolitik (as yet untranslated, but something like ‘The Impelled: Merkel and Refugee Politics’), we now have a fine-grained account of Merkel’s decision to open the border in September 2015.[*] Both the CDU and Merkel herself have a long history of anti-refugee and anti-immigration policies and rhetoric. In the mid-1980s, when thousands of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka began taking flights to East Germany, then turning up in West Berlin as asylum-seekers, Schäuble himself travelled from Bonn to East Berlin to see Erich Honecker, the East German leader. Bonn’s interest-free loan to the East was increased ‘within the context of’ keeping the Tamils from getting on planes. In the early 1990s, the CDU drove through the notorious ‘Asylum Compromise’, which curtailed the right to asylum set out in the German constitution. Merkel’s government has kept the rate of review of asylum applications at low levels; before the summer of 2015, it had declared the countries of the western Balkans safe for return. In May, the government suspended the deportation of non-criminal refugees to Afghanistan only after ninety people were killed within 400 metres of the German Embassy in Kabul.

So why did Merkel change her mind in 2015? Alexander’s account casts doubt on the notion that her decision can be attributed to her being a Protestant pastor’s daughter. (In a speech in her home church in Templin in 2014, she argued that ‘it is perhaps even less Christian when we take in too many and cannot find a place for those who really need one.’) We may never get a satisfying answer, but it appears to have been mostly a combination of pragmatism and historical circumstance. On 4 September, Merkel was told that thousands of refugees in Hungary were trying to make their way to Austria. The leaders of Hungary and Austria were demanding to know: should they use force to stop them, or let them proceed? Thomas de Mazière, her interior minister, was at home ill. Seehofer, still furious at Merkel’s failure to attend the celebration of what would have been the CSU deity Franz-Josef Strauss’s 100th birthday, had switched off his phone. Merkel, watching on her iPad as refugees walked along the Hungarian autobahn towards the Austrian border, made her decision.

The next day German train drivers were woken early to run emergency trains full of refugees from Austria to Munich. No one knew how many there would be, or where to send them once they arrived. Merkel spent a fruitless day calling European leaders, asking them to accept quotas of refugees. Budapest, Warsaw and Prague not only rejected her pleas, but saw an opportunity to reject a German diktat and make political gains at home by demonising the tiny numbers of refugees within their own borders.

In her favour was German public opinion, which had swung to a pro-refugee position during the summer of 2015: photographs of the three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s corpse on a Turkish beach appeared just two days before Merkel opened the border. Instead of Greek protesters carrying placards depicting the chancellor as Hitler, now thousands of Syrians and others headed towards the border holding up images of Merkel as the face of compassion. She seems to have seen a chance to turn a corner in Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung – its ongoing, largely enviable, reckoning with its history. The pro-refugee euphoria of summer 2015, which now seems distant, was widespread and genuine. For a brief season, Germans were besotted with their own magnanimity, handing out bottles of water and stuffed animals to Syrians at the train station in Munich. Compared to the treatment of refugees in France – where they squatted in makeshift settlements in Paris playgrounds and festered in the Calais ‘jungle’ – Germany offered a very plausible welcome, which is why most of them wanted to go there. Germany’s status as the refugees’ destination of choice made Merkel’s attempt to share the burden across Europe all the more difficult.

By November 2015, while the public mood held steady, German mayors tasked with handling the refugees began to turn against Merkel’s policy. ‘Wir schaffen das,’ she said (‘We’ll pull this off’), but offered little sense of how. Seehofer accused her of instigating lawlessness, welcomed Viktor Orbán to Bavaria and at the annual CSU convention savagely upbraided her while she stood by his side. But when he ended his harangue with a mollifying parting line – ‘Seehofer and Merkel … or rather Merkel and Seehofer … always manage to find a solution’ – Merkel dramatically rolled her eyes and twitched her eyebrows, to the cheers of the audience (she drew from the same repertoire at her first meeting with Donald Trump). By January 2016, however, after attacks on women by North African men at new year celebrations in Cologne, the German public and media rapidly reverted to the anti-refugee norm. The perception of a refugee ‘crisis’ became acute in February when the Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, made a string of deals – in defiance of Brussels – across the Balkans to shut borders all the way back to the refugees’ points of origin in Greece and Italy. The effect was to put Germany under more pressure. The only solution, both for Brussels and for Berlin, appeared to be a deal with Turkey that would stop the refugees from entering Europe at all.

It was Berlusconi who had traditionally played the role of bouncer, cutting deals with the likes of Gaddafi to keep refugees out. Now that Berlusconi had left the stage, Merkel had to do the dirty work herself. She flew to Ankara to negotiate with Erdoğan, a man she had personally reviled for years, and who had been humiliated in his attempts to get Turkey on the path to membership of the EU (an ambition that no longer preoccupies him). In October 2015, Erdoğan invited Merkel to Yildiz palace and perched her on a gilded chair, surrounded by gold and framed by two Turkish flags. A month later, they met again at the G20 summit in Antalya. Straight after talks with Merkel, Erdoğan met with Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, presidents respectively of the European Council and European Commission. ‘What are you going to do if you don’t get this deal?’ he asked them. ‘Shoot the refugees? Europe wouldn’t be dealing with one dead boy on the Turkish coast: there would be ten or fifteen thousand.’ The historically close relationship between Germany and Turkey rapidly deteriorated over the course of the negotiations. In 2016, the Bundestag passed a resolution that recognised the Armenian genocide. In June this year, a law was passed preventing foreign politicians from campaigning in the country without first getting permission – a move specifically intended to curb Erdoğan’s attempt to win over the 1.5 million Turkish citizens in Germany. Erdoğan accuses Merkel of using ‘Nazi methods’; meanwhile, he has imprisoned at least a dozen German journalists and human rights activists. Nevertheless, the two countries remain bound together by necessity. Germany is Turkey’s biggest market, a fact that has become no less significant during the Turkish economic downturn.

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Despite their tireless projection of themselves as beacons of moral propriety in a darkening world, the CDU and the CSU are encrusted with tawdriness, obfuscation and corruption. In the most recent instance, the government attempted to suppress parts of an official report on poverty and wealth. References to the problem of lobbying and a ‘crisis of representation’ were deleted from a draft circulated within the labour ministry, as were sentences such as ‘Not only do people in Germany with different incomes take part in politics to various degrees, but the playing field clearly isn’t level, to the detriment of the poor, when it comes to political decision-making.’ One might think such things would leave the CDU vulnerable to challengers at an election in which four other parties are set to enter parliament, yet these parties have shown themselves consistently incapable of taking advantage of the situation.

Earlier this month, journalistic investigations revealed that the former CSU parliamentarian Eduard Lintner had received payments of more than $1 million from Azerbaijan after claiming on an official visit to monitor the presidential election that the process was ‘up to German standards’ Several environmental scandals this summer should have been gifts to the German Greens. In July, EU anti-trust regulators announced they would be investigating allegations that Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW had colluded to keep down prices of car parts, including emissions systems. In early August, politicians admitted that ten million insecticide-contaminated eggs may have entered Germany. Instead of seizing the moment, the Greens joined the other parties in asking for stricter labelling (‘We want the consumer to be able to take an informed decision’) and more research into electric cars (‘We don’t want to have to see the German car in a museum one day’). Their predecessors once rode bicycles to make a point; the candidates in this election, Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt, tour the country in electric cars, stressing that they have no plans to disturb the golden geese of the German economy. But the Greens’ deeper problem is that they have transferred their self-righteousness from the environment to the way they go about politics in general. The party of long-haired sneaker-wearing parliamentarians now wear crisp suits and ties. Its role as the government’s most hostile opponent has been taken over by Alternative für Deutschland. When in the regional election in the Saarland, the Greens failed to break the 5 per cent threshold and were forced to leave the regional assembly, instead of taking a hard look at themselves they complained that their interests – public transport, clean water and education – just were ‘no longer hot shit’.

The one party that has managed to pass itself off as freshly reinvented is the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which has crept up in the polls under the guidance of its leader, Christian Lindner. The 38-year-old former racing driver has identified a number of chinks in the armour of the CDU/CSU, which he exploits by appealing to young elites in the cities who’re keen on digitisation and the prospect of living in a ‘start-up nation’, as well as attracting suburban voters by re-calibrating the party’s stance on refugees: support them while they’re here, but don’t allow them to convert refugee status into citizenship. It is an approach that allows German voters to applaud their own generosity while at the same time assuaging their fears. Lindner’s call for Greece to exit the euro, and his willingness to consider Putin’s seizure of the Crimea a fait accompli, appeal to CDU voters, and limit his party’s possible losses to the AfD. German industry, which has poured money into the FDP, sees it as worthy of ruling, once again, in coalition with the CDU/CSU, or possibly in a ‘Jamaica’ coalition: the CDU (black), the FDP (yellow) and the Greens.

Alternative für Deutschland is the party that has benefited most from the malfeasance of the CDU and disgust with its grand coalition. It will almost certainly reach the 5 per cent threshold required to gain seats in parliament at the election. The key to the party’s rise in 2014-15 was the burgherly imprimatur it received from its early champions, who included a former culture editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, and – most significant – a former IBM executive and president of the Federation of German Industry, Hans Olaf Henkel, who privately financed the party’s early activities. The patronage of such figures protected the AfD from what might otherwise have been a fatal media assault at its start. The party leadership was soon taken over by liberal identitarians – who made the free-market and selective secular elements of the ‘German way of life’ the cornerstones of an Enlightenment heritage under siege – as well as a group of more traditional nationalists and Christian civilisationalists happy finally to have found a viable political home. There has been a struggle to keep the peace between the two factions. The liberal identitarians are represented by Alice Weidel, a former Goldman Sachs apparatchik who trains her ire on Brussels and Islam, while the national chauvinists, more sceptical of the market, prefer Alexander Gauland, an old CDU exile given to Trumpian outbursts against the 1968 generation, black people, memory politics and the betrayal of conservative values by Merkel, for whom he harbours a personal hatred.

The AfD has drawn defections from all the other main parties, though the damage to the CDU has been limited by the presence of the CSU, which continues to provide the CDU with right-wing cover: Merkel is the most popular politician in the CSU, while Seehofer is the most popular politician in the AfD. The party most affected by the rise of the AfD has probably been Die Linke: both parties aim to capture the votes of unemployed factory workers, especially in eastern Germany. Die Linke was formed in 2007 when a faction unwilling to go along with Schröder’s labour reforms broke away from the SPD and joined up with the post-1989 successor to the governing Communist Party. Sahra Wagenknecht, the party’s most visible figure, brings a cool professional anger to television talk-shows and the Bundestag, where her Marxist broadsides appeal to former factory workers in eastern Germany as well as to Berlin intellectuals.

Wagenknecht won what is rumoured to have been a bitter struggle with the party co-chair Katja Kipping to be Die Linke’s candidate at the election. Kipping, from Dresden, heads the more bourgeois, greenish, ‘emancipatory’ wing of the party. She wants a twenty-hour working week and, along with her co-chair, Bernd Reixinger, has published papers arguing for a universal basic income and the reform of the Eurozone to focus on cross-border capital flows, which it sees as the decisive disruptors in the Continent’s economy. But these arguments are unlikely to advance as long as Wagenknecht remains the face of the party. Her vision of the future of labour doesn’t go further than the ideal of full employment, which Germany last achieved in 1973. She dismisses basic income as charity: ‘Labour is connected to social contacts, recognition and affirmation,’ she says. Yet in her reverence for a type of work that is unlikely to return, Wagenknecht facilitates the growth of marginal low-wage employment – ‘Minijobs’, as they are known in Germany. Die Linke’s refusal to imagine new sources of ‘recognition and affirmation’ leaves its supporters in a position where they would rather be exploited in insecure work than join the millions of welfare recipients that today’s ‘labour activation’ regime teaches them to see as failures and parasites.

Die Linke failed to gain any advantage from the protests against July’s G20 summit in Hamburg. It was unable, or unwilling, to challenge the terms of a public debate that concerned itself principally with the question of how the protests should be controlled in order to pre-empt violence. In such an anaesthetised political landscape, what prospect is there that cracks will appear in the CDU’s dominance? Some think the party’s secret is that it runs on Darwinian principles, and that the next chancellor must fight to get to the top rather than be nurtured by a predecessor. It’s true that Merkel has made little effort to groom a successor, and the extent of the CDU’s dependence on her mustn’t be underestimated. Even the country’s youth, looking across at their jobless peers in Spain and France, prefer Merkel to any other politician.

Many leftists and Greens, disillusioned with their own party leaders, have been stunned by Merkel’s modernisation of the CDU and her steadfastness in the first months of the refugee crisis. Too stunned, perhaps, to notice that her trick is to avoid the country’s root problems while treating the symptoms more skilfully than any conservative politician before her has ever managed. The media, meanwhile, unwilling to address the difficulties caused by Germany’s position as the reluctant hegemon of the Continent, or the growing sense of lurking inconsistencies in the gospel of Atlanticism, prefer endless celebration of the leader: the intellectual, strong, patient, grounded, wry, compassionate, tough, reality-grasping, scientific, opera-loving, Bismarckian wunder-Kanzlerin on whom nothing is lost. One of the few things the mainstream press holds against her is that she doesn’t campaign in a way that generates copy; others dislike the way she has so thoroughly depoliticised the country. As for the German press’s own responsibility to repoliticise it, it is too busy counting the broken windows in Hamburg.

[*] Siedler Verlag, 286 pp., £17.05, March, 978 3 8275 0093 9.