One European leader more than any other will be concerned by Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel is by some distance the single most powerful leader in the EU. Presiding over what is by far the EU’s biggest economy, especially since the onset of the 2008 financial crisis she has been the de facto “Queen of Europe”.
Merkel has achieved this position through a combination of genuine political skill and good luck.
She was the beneficiary of the tough economic reforms imposed on Germany by her far more talented predecessor, Gerhard Schroder, which significantly strengthened the German economy’s competitiveness at the price of permanently alienating a large part of the German working class from Schroder’s SPD party. The result is that Merkel inherited a strong economy from Schroder, whilst in the SPD she has faced with a seriously weakened rival.
Merkel has however also shown herself a skilled wire-puller and fixer in Germany’s complex domestic politics. She was once described to me as “power hungry and treacherous”, and in fact German politics is littered with the corpses of political figures who either were or who might have become her rivals – the most prominent amongst them being her former patron, former CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Much of Merkel’s success has been based on very skilled public relations, with Merkel successfully projecting an image of herself as the sensible, thrifty, practical, no-nonsense, but always highly moral German hausfrau – a persona in reality almost totally at variance with the person she actually is, but one which plays well with the more conservative section of German society, which traditionally votes for the CDU.
The ultimate secret of Merkel’s success has however been her practice of always taking the line of least resistance. She always tries to avoid picking fights she might lose, but makes up for this by bearing down hard on those who are weaker than herself in order to project an image of decisiveness and strength.
In practice that has meant an unwillingness to contemplate any changes in Germany itself, which might upset people in Germany, together with a rejection of any proposals during the euro crisis that might be controversial in Germany, such as for example the introduction of pan-European bonds
This approach has also involved following an exceptionally close alignment with the US. The latter is important to Merkel since it guarantees for Merkel the support of Germany’s overwhelmingly Atlanticist news media, whose hostility to her predecessor Gerhard Schroder played a by no means insignificant part in his eventual downfall.
In my opinion the consequences of Merkel’s approach to politics is that the benefits of Schroder’s reforms have been slowly frittered away as Germany gradually lapses into stagnation, whilst the euro crisis has been deepened and extended beyond all reason as all possible solutions that might make the eurozone work are ruled out. This will have bad long term consequences for Germany, where problems are gradually accumulating without being addressed, and has had terrible consequences for southern Europe, especially for countries like Greece, Cyprus, Ireland and Portugal, and undermining support for the EU project as a whole.
However in narrow political terms there is no doubt that Merkel’s approach to politics has been extremely effective, with Merkel’s refusal to challenge strongly held opinions leaving her for long politically unchallenged in Germany and often enjoying approval ratings at stratospheric levels. The result is that she is now the longest serving democratically elected Chancellor in German history. Even now, when criticism of her has become more widespread in Germany, the accumulated goodwill she has built up over the course of her long career together with her success in eliminating rivals means that there is no obvious challenger to her.
It is nonetheless the case that over the last two years Merkel’s position has weakened significantly as the problems with her approach to policy have become more apparent.
Her biggest single mistake was her decision in July 2014 to support US demands that the EU impose sectoral sanctions on Russia because of the Ukrainian crisis.
Merkel’s predecessors – Willi Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroder – had pursued a highly successful policy of Ostpolitik, which had involved a close rapprochement with Russia. In the same situation they would have worked hard to contain the Ukrainian crisis by building diplomatic bridges to Russia, by positioning Germany as an honest broker between the US and Russia, and by genuinely seeking a diplomatic settlement to the crisis, which would of necessity have involved formal guarantees of Ukraine’s future neutrality.
Merkel instead committed herself and Germany to backing wholeheartedly a fragile and extremist regime in Kiev, which she is unable to control, placing herself and Germany in unequivocal opposition to a Russia, which she has alienated.
In some respects Merkel’s decision to take this step was unsurprising. She was under intense pressure from the US and from the Atlanticist lobby in Germany – which includes the German media – to take it. It is always her practice to take the line of least resistance by do nothing which might be controversial with the strongest body of opinion in Germany. In the summer of 2014 the strongest body of opinion in Germany appeared to be that of the Atlanticists.
Merkel also almost certainly made her decision on the basis of mistaken assumptions of Russian weakness.
It seems Merkel was under the misapprehension – apparently fostered by a profoundly mistaken report from the German intelligence agency the BND – that the oligarchs are far more powerful in Russia than they actually are, and that they can either bend Putin to their will or can remove him from power if he doesn’t do what they want. Like most Western politicians Merkel takes the cynicism and corruption of the Russian businessmen the West calls oligarchs for granted, and treats it as axiomatic that they will always act in their own narrow selfish financial interests rather than from patriotic motives.
Accordingly Merkel seems to have assumed that not only would the Russian economy spiral into crisis if sectoral sanctions were imposed on it, but that the oligarchs would either force Putin to back down and retreat from Ukraine and Crimea, or would remove him from power in order to get the sanctions lifted.
Merkel was not the only person in 2014 to believe these things. On the contrary they were the common belief of many Western political leaders and officials. As an extraordinary recent opinion piece in the Financial Times urging the oligarchs to overthrow Putin shows, they remain the belief of some people in the West still.
Needless to say Merkel’s expectations of a coup in Moscow were not fulfilled, and already by the autumn of 2014 – as became all too clear following her meetings with Putin in Milan and Brisbane – she had become aware of her mistake, as she found herself for the first time in her career pitted against an adversary she could neither bully nor intimidate.
Ever since then Merkel has been locked in a rearguard action, trying to preserve the sanctions – which have become the symbol of her authority across Europe – without having any clear idea of the way forward, in the face of mounting criticism from the business community in Germany, and growing skepticism and hostility in much of the rest of Europe.
There is often a tipping point in a political career after which everything seems to go wrong, and Merkel’s misjudgement over the sanctions looks like being hers.
The sanctions debacle led directly to her mismanagement of the Greek crisis and the refugee crisis, her mishandling of both crises being attempts by her to restore her reputation and reassert her authority in Europe and Germany as her judgement over the sanctions issue was increasingly been questioned.
In the event her mishandling of both crises – in which she followed her usual line of taking the line of least resistance and bullying the weaker party – has instead caused her judgement to be questioned even more, with widespread anger across southern Europe at the impossibly harsh terms imposed on Greece, and still great anger in eastern Europe and in Germany itself at the way she imposed a refugee policy no-one wanted.
However if Merkel’s problems were already becoming serious before Trump’s election, then the prospect of a Trump Presidency has hugely compounded them.
The key reason Merkel took the approach she did during the Ukrainian crisis, the Greek crisis, and the refugee crisis, is because in each case she deferred to the wishes of the Obama administration, to which in order to safeguard her position in Germany she has cultivated close ties.
Her reward has been to make her the one European leader known to have Obama’s trust.
Merkel is also known to have developed close personal relations with Hillary Clinton. Indeed there are rumours she and Hillary Clinton are personal friends. Hillary Clinton has even praised her as her favourite world leader.
Merkel must now face the nightmare that instead of the Hillary Clinton administration she undoubtedly wanted and expected she now has to deal with President Trump instead.
If Trump sees through his policy of working towards a rapprochement with Russia then Merkel, who has staked so much of her authority by pursuing a policy of confrontation with Russia, is going to have the rug pulled from under her feet.
The Russians are already talking about the lifting of the sanctions being a condition for a genuine improvement in relations with a Trump led US. As if to emphasise the point Russian Economics Minister Alexey Ulyukaev is now saying as much in an interview he has just given to the German newspaper Die Welt.
For Merkel that would be the biggest disaster of all: being forced to lift the sanctions – which she imposed on the EU at the behest of the US and to which her authority is tied – because the US has reversed its policy, is implicitly admitting its previous policy which she supported was wrong, and is insisting that the sanctions be lifted .
Needless to say if Trump goes further still and – as he hinted in the election campaign – recognises Crimea as part of Russia, then Merkel’s entire policy towards Russia over the last two years will be completely discredited and will have publicly failed, making her position both in Germany and Europe completely untenable.
In some ways Merkel’s plight in the aftermath of Trump’s victory reminds me of that of the East German leader Eric Honecker following Gorbachev’s emergence in the 1980s as Soviet President.
Like Honecker Merkel now finds the unqualified support of her superpower patron upon which she has built her entire career suddenly and unexpectedly in doubt. Just like Honecker she doesn’t seem to know what to do, and just like Honecker her ritual words of support for the new leader of the patron superpower contain thinly veiled criticisms and lack conviction.
As a highly historically minded former East German citizen who witnessed Honecker’s fall and the fall of the Wall, it is not inconceivable that Merkel is herself conscious of the parallel.
Whether she is or not, for Merkel the stakes now could not be higher. As she confronts the prospect of a Trump Presidency her future hangs by a thread.