‘Queen of Europe’? 2015 will be the defining year for Angela Merkel's Chancellorship

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
German Chancellor Angela Merkel.(Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch)
For decades, the rest of the world wondered who to call when they needed to speak to Europe. Since Angela Merkel became the continent’s dominant politician and Germany asserted itself as its superpower, that question no longer applies.

In 2015, Merkel faces the pivotal year of her reign as “Queen of Europe.”

When Ronald Reagan courted Europe’s leaders 30 years ago, urging them to stand firm against the USSR, things were more complicated. Britain, France and West Germany were equally significant - and divided on the ‘Soviet question’ - so a balancing act was required. Margaret Thatcher was rabidly anti-Communist and needed little coaxing to Washington’s worldview. On the other hand, Helmut Kohl managed a Bonn government still in touch with ‘Ostpolitik’ and Francois Mitterrand’s socialist administration was largely ambiguous in its intentions.

Today, for Barack Obama, it’s much simpler. The US President need only recognize one top-dog - Angela Merkel’s Germany. While paying lip-service to London and occasionally massaging French egos, it’s apparent that the White House has effectively delegated responsibility for Europe to Berlin.

For its part, Russia also clearly comprehends the reality. Whereas Mikhail Gorbachev once placed huge importance on relations with Thatcher, Vladimir Putin essentially ignores David Cameron. The Kremlin does treat the French with more warmth than the Americans manage. This goes back to the Iraq War when Putin stood firm with Jacques Chirac - and Gerhard Schroder - in firm opposition to the conflict. There's also the fact that Paris remains relatively hostile to US interests and avoids much of the 'Stockholm syndrome' its neighbors exhibit when dealing with Washington.

As George W Bush and Tony Blair saber rattled, for a brief moment, a new European order seemed feasible, Paris, Moscow and Berlin in concert against Anglo-Saxon imperialism. However, Merkel deposed Schroder as German chancellor and the opportunity slipped. Make no mistake, Merkel is - or at least was - an ‘Atlanticist’ who deeply distrusts Russia. Unlike Schroder, who followed Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt and aped their belief that Russia-German friendship was vital; the current Chancellor has another perspective entirely. Raised in East Germany, she personally experienced the oppression of USSR sponsored Communism and is unable to separate ‘new’ Russia from its Soviet predecessor.

US President Barack Obama (R) chats to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (C).(AFP Photo / Chris Hyde)

That said, as Germany’s power and influence has mushroomed, her pro-American views have also waned. Phone tapping, the use of drones and increasing radicalism in Washington politics have turned her off 'Uncle Sam.' Declining support for the US is a countrywide phenomenon in Germany as numerous polls indicate. Nevertheless, the country remains, in practice, a military colony of America and political reluctance to invest in the Bundeswehr (army) suggests this won’t change in short order.

German opinion also serves as a symbol of Obama’s disappointing Presidency. As a candidate, he was arguably more popular in Berlin than New York, with 200,000 people lining the Tiergarten when he - in retrospect confusingly - decided to speak there in 2008. Now it’s fair to say that his star has diminished in Germany to the extent that he’d be lucky to attract 10,000 in a Tiergarten redux.

John F Kennedy he is not. Germans still revere JFK, indeed there’s a museum to his memory opposite the Brandenburg Gate. They also fondly remember the USA that Kennedy represented, a strident forward looking nation with principles. The neocon driven mess of today doesn’t resonate with modern Germans, who abhor aggression.

Merkel worshipped the ‘old’ USA, especially Reagan for his tough stance against the Soviets. She also once harbored an enthusiastic admiration of American ‘dynamism.’ 25 years after she stepped out from behind the Iron Curtain, her disappointment at realizing that US propaganda and the US reality are very different is quite obvious. Merkel often seems to hold the same contempt for West Europeans who she most probably once imagined as equally enterprising. In this context, Merkel’s position is rather Russian. Ask any 50-plus Russian who has travelled and they’ll openly admit that their view of ‘westerners’ is markedly different now from that of a quarter century ago.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.(Reuters / Hannibal Hanschke )

Merkel has little personal time for Obama, which is not unusual in German-Washington relations. Konrad Adenauer detested Kennedy and Bush loathed Schroder. Conversely, she is also cold with Putin. Their relationship has none of the camaraderie of the Schroder-Putin amicability. For his part, Putin seems to respect her and accords her deference he rarely shows to Obama. Obama, who is rarely buddy-buddy with any world leaders, also maintains an obeisance with his Berlin counterpart.

The reason both Putin and Obama strain for a cordial affiliation with Merkel is transparently obvious - they both need her. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the Chancellor will ultimately decide the outcome of the current Moscow-Washington estrangement. Rather than talking to each other, Putin and Obama both seem to use Merkel as a go-between. Last year, Putin is reported to have spent over 110 hours on the phone to his Berlin opposite number. Incidentally, Merkel’s Russian is impeccable - as a teenager she even won a trip to Moscow due to her proficiency. Putin lived for many years in Dresden and his German is equally impressive.

Ukraine is a massive headache for Merkel. She rules by consensus and is wary of taking strong positions on anything. However, on this issue she must balance a number of conflicting interests. While Germany is deeply suspicious of US military power, the reality is that, via NATO, the country relies on the US for its security. The state of the Bundeswehr is abject and its doubtful Germany could protect itself against Poland, let alone Russia. For this reason, if Washington perceived that Berlin was betraying its Ukraine agenda and becoming cozy with Moscow, there could be serious consequences for the current alliance between the protector and the protected.

On the other hand, if Merkel were to acquiesce to American pressure and fast-track Ukraine into the EU, she would face huge domestic turmoil. The simple fact is that Germans are tired - as they see it - of paying for the EU, especially feckless states in the East and South. Given that Ukraine is so dysfunctional that it makes Greece look like Switzerland, there is absolutely zero appetite among German voters for taking it on. Should Merkel even attempt to go down this road, her own party, the CDU might remove her from power.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.(Reuters / Hannibal Hanschke)

Another problem is sanctions and the effect they are having on Russia’s economy. Russia has been, along with China, the fastest growing market for German luxury goods - especially cars - in recent years. Indeed, access to Russia’s once booming economy has acted as a pressure valve against declining consumption in Europe. Before Christmas, The New York Times reported that German carmakers are forecast to lose $18 billion from 2014-2017 because of Russian sanctions. Given that auto manufacturers are concentrated in Bavaria and Baden-Wittenberg, the CDU’s traditional heartlands, this could become a totem pole for anti-Angela feeling in the party.

Mention of the CDU brings us to another Merkel paradox. Unlike most electorally successful leaders, she’s not particularly well got in her own party. In a grouping historically controlled by Catholic men from the prosperous south and west of the country, Merkel is very much an outsider. Raised as a Protestant in the GDR, and a woman, she is as far away from the prototypical CDU leader as is possible. Brought into the party, and earnestly promoted, by Helmut Kohl, she later knifed her predecessor. This hasn’t been forgotten in the CDU, especially among its Rhineland factions that remain loyal to Kohl. Her difficult relationship with Edmund Stoiber, widely revered in Bavaria, has dented her support in Germany’s wealthiest - and most staunchly Catholic - state.

Merkel has always walked a fine line and performed a very careful balancing act as Chancellor. This year, she will be forced to get off the fence as a flurry of long-festering problems spring into the open.

The EU, which Berlin dominates, faces a year of turmoil due to probable changes of government in Spain and Greece. Both nations threaten to veer away from the austerity Merkel has championed. In Greece’s case, their continued membership of the euro is in doubt. A Hellenic exit could inspire a major country, perhaps Italy, to also charge the trapdoor, placing the single currency’s future in question. Make no mistake; the euro has been massively advantageous for Germany, by providing its exporters with guaranteed prices due to the absence of fluctuating exchange rates. The end of the currency union could also herald the culmination of Germany’s financial stranglehold on the continent. Every major EU economy has seen its share of global GDP diminish in the past decade expect one - Germany. A euro collapse would be devastating for Merkel and Berlin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L), Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R).(AFP Photo / Daniel Dal Zennaro)

The Chancellors obsession with ‘Black Zero’s’ (balanced budgets) is another potential weakness. Germany’s infrastructure is crumbling with road and bridge closures a fact of life. By refusing to spend, Merkel has left herself wide open to public anger should a major artery be affected.

ISIS is also causing a blowback. Recently it was revealed that 500 jihadists currently fighting the Middle East were German raised. This has again opened a can of worms about integration and immigration policies in Germany. Merkel’s fealty to neoliberalism and open borders leaves her in peril of attack from the Conservative wing of the CDU. This is the same section that is watching as the economic health of its southern fiefdoms (Bavaria as CSU) is decimated by Russia sanctions.

Angela Merkel’s consensus style of leadership, “rule by opinion polls” as some in Berlin call it, has delivered short-term gains for Germany while allowing long-term problems to smolder. Merkel has attempted to stave off confrontation over Germany’s infrastructure, its attitude to immigration and the sorry state of the eurozone’s periphery. 2015 will be the year that all these lingering worries come to a head. On top of it all, the Chancellor must also help sort out the Ukraine crisis.

Kicking the can down the road is no longer a viable strategy. This year, Angela Merkel will prove whether she deserves a place in history to equal that of Adenauer or her mentor, Kohl. If she fails the coming tests, the “Queen of Europe” could quickly lose her throne.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.