Published:  12:00 AM, 17 March 2017 Last Update: 04:27 AM, 17 March 2017

Will Angela Merkel save the West


The crisis of Western liberalism just seems to get deeper: first Brexit, then the election of Donald Trump. Last December, a far-right figure came within a whisker of entering the imperial palace in Vienna, and Italy's young technocratic prime minister resigned after losing a referendum on constitutional reform. Far-right parties now lead the polls in forthcoming elections in the Netherlands and France.

Ms. Merkel's self-effacing, steady political style is certainly the polar opposite of Mr. Trump's erratic egotism, but for her advocates she stands for much more than just propriety and decorum. She represents an unwavering commitment to human rights and free trade and to a host of rules-based international institutions, like the European Union and NATO and the World Trade Organization.

If the future of Western liberalism rests on Ms. Merkel's shoulders, then it really is in trouble. She has often spoken in support of European and Western unity, but her actions have done little to strengthen them. Moreover, it's not clear how deep her ideological commitment to liberalism really is - or, for that matter, whether she has any ideological commitments at all.

To understand Ms. Merkel's ambivalent liberal legacy, we must start with economics. Under her leadership, Germany has steadily performed well - at the expense of other European countries. Within the zero-sum economy of the eurozone, Germany has enjoyed huge balance-of-payments surpluses, selling machine tools and cars to consumers around the Continent. France, Italy and other former exporters, meanwhile, have fallen behind. Germany's economy is built on Germans saving more than they consume. This creates powerful deflationary dynamics for the entire currency bloc. Germany has refused to accept slightly higher domestic inflation as a condition for letting the rest of the eurozone grow. Even now, German representatives on the European Central Bank's governing board are demanding higher interest rates to placate irate German savers who are seeing no return on their money.

The relentless effort to keep wages and prices down in Germany has shaped political life across Europe. In Italy, two of the leading opposition parties - the Five Star Movement and the Northern League - oppose the common currency. The failure of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's reform agenda owes a great deal to Italy's economic stagnation. In France, François Hollande won the presidency in 2012 after saying that he would persuade Ms. Merkel to support a more pro-growth policy for the eurozone. He did no such thing. His lackluster efforts at reducing unemployment and expanding growth are behind his record-level unpopularity and the collapse in support for mainstream parties we see today.

The Greek government and, in particular, its finance minister at the time, Yanis Varoufakis, tried to transform the shadowy and technocratic meetings of the eurozone finance ministers into public arguments about the causes of the crisis. This changed Germany's de facto running of the currency union into something much more sinister, where what is good for Germany is not good for Europe as a whole.

But even if Germany has succeeded at the expense of Europe's poorer countries, Ms. Merkel is no nationalist. Pragmatism and opportunism alone drive her decisions, and retaining power is her primary goal. This has been her approach to politics at home during her nearly 12 years in office: She has taken the sting out of German electoral politics by adopting key policies promoted by other parties. In the space of just weeks in 2011 she reversed her policy on nuclear energy, adopting the Green Party's longstanding pledge to eradicate Germany's reliance on nuclear power. She has done something similar on the national minimum wage, a key Social Democrat Party policy that she has made her own.

When it comes to the international liberal order, this attitude means that collectively agreed-to rules don't count when weighed against German public opinion. Just look at Ms. Merkel's handling of the European refugee crisis. In August 2015, she declared that all Syrian refugees stuck in the Balkans and Southern Europe were welcome in Germany. A cause for celebration for supporters of more open borders, Ms. Merkel's decision was arguably a unilateral breach of European asylum law.

As ever with the German chancellor, it is difficult to know her motives. Perhaps she was overcome by a desire to help desperate people. More likely, she was attempting to rehabilitate Germany's battered image. Her decision to open Germany's borders came only a few weeks after she had thrown her weight behind a new bailout agreement with Greece that imposed on the Greek people a pitiless schedule of debt repayments and led to an outpouring of anti-German sentiment in many parts of Europe.

Most significantly, Ms. Merkel was the driving force behind the March 2016 Turkey-European Union refugee deal. Under this agreement, the European Union has pledged billions of euros to Turkey in exchange for keeping Syrian refugees on Turkish soil. The deal ignored doubts about the status of Turkey as a "safe haven country" for asylum seekers. Its measure of success is whether it has brought down to zero the number of new arrivals into the European Union. The deal that Ms. Merkel helped engineer with Turkey was the bureaucratic equivalent of Mr. Trump's plan for a border wall; it's a version of "Fortress Europe" that must make Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders smile.

Will Ms. Merkel defend the Western liberal order against the onslaught of Donald Trump when she visits Washington this week? Of course she won't. She may not go as far as holding his hand - but she will strike a deal with Mr. Trump that is good for Germany and good for her electoral fortunes at home. That is what she has always done, and it would be absurd to expect her to do anything different. The writer is a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University


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