The euro crisis has infiltrated every aspect of the political life of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Indeed, as Merkel herself noted, even the Pope wanted to talk with her about the economic situation in Europe when the two met on 22 September.
The crisis has become the make-or-break issue in discussions about whether her centre-right governing coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) will fall apart, or whether Merkel will win a third term.
Merkel has found herself fired upon from all sides. President Christian Wulff has called steps taken by the European Central Bank during the crisis “legally questionable”. The FDP’s new-ish leader Philipp Rösler has challenged her, by suggesting that there should be no taboos – such as a Greek default – in the debate about eurozone economies. And many in her own party – the Christian Democrats (CDU) – and in its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have protested.
The firing has also come from above and below. The CDU/CSU grassroots have shown themselves reluctant to efforts to help Greece and other struggling economies in the eurozone, while, at the top, leading ministers – for instance, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen and Ursula von der Leyen, the labour minister – have indirectly shown up Merkel’s coolness by their strong support for integration.
Merkel has found herself in a lose- lose situation and she has reacted by doing what she thinks she does best: by being pragmatic.
As the crisis deteriorated, she replaced the pragmatism of the diplomat with the prosaic pragmatism of a banker: she dwelt on numbers, arguing with short-term economic results. Merkel was well aware that her potential voters were not Greek labour unions, but the German public.
If only Greece had been affected, this might have worked. But as the crisis spread, the thinness of this short-term rhetoric became transparent, and the calls for a long-term strategy to save political Europe strengthened.
Merkel is therefore left with just one option: to try to strengthen the European cause at home. This does not require appealing to the pro-European sentiments of the ageing post-war and 1968 generations. It requires communicating why the bail-outs are vitally important for Germany’s own sake.
Recent shifts in her rhetoric suggest she understands that: in an interview in September, she delivered – by her standards – an emotional declaration of her commitment to the European idea. Since then, both in the Bundestag and in a series of regional conferences, her attacks on spendthrift Greece have been scaled back in favour of pleas for root-and-branch reform of the EU.
She will need to do more: as Merkel has said, the eurozone’s deal on 27 October was just one step. She and her ministers can remain pragmatic – as long as it is not the pragmatism of a banker.