On Europe, Angela Merkel has been a poor Chancellor

I’ve wanted to write about the record of Angela Merkel on European policy for a while. Given that there is a EU summit next week and Merkel is under pressure over Europe, this seems to be a good time to write. Anyway, I want to argue that Merkel has been a poor Chancellor in terms of European policy. Before I expand on this argument, let me make a couple of caveats. Firstly, I am only writing about the record of Merkel on Europe, as opposed to domestic affairs (in which she appears to be more competent). Secondly, I do not mean that Merkel has been truly terrible on Europe, in the way that one might appraise the Middle Eastern policy of George W. Bush. I purposefully use the word ‘poor’, which one might equate with a disappointing 4/10 performance. These caveats notwithstanding, there are two serious indictments of Merkel which are highly germane to the future of the EU.

1/ Policy on the Euro

Though it was fashionable to criticize the German Government on austerity a few years ago, it surprises me how many liberals/left-wingers seem to have forgotten this issue and ongoing problems with the Euro. I suspect that this is because Merkel is admired by many left-liberals because of the 2015 decision to open borders. Whatever the merits of this policy, the consequences of austerity cannot be underplayed. Quite aside from socio-economic effects, which of course have been devastating, austerity has markedly increased Euroscepticism in Southern Europe and continues to destabilize the Eurozone. Linked to this is the continued refusal of Germany to implement significant reform of the Eurozone which, as authorities such as Simon Wren-Lewis have noted, can be associated with national self-interest.

I am actually not convinced that Merkel genuinely believes in austerity. Given the good evidence that austerity does not work, not to mention strong and consistent opposition to the policy from many quarters, it may be that Merkel has always had considerable doubts; her generally pragmatic character and willingness to adopt Keynesian measures in Germany would suggest this. Instead, what may have happened is that she simply followed the body of German public opinion which demanded punitive measures in Southern Europe and neoliberals from her own CDU party. This would have been politically convenient. If this is what happened, these are not the actions of a European stateswoman however.

2/ The 2015 decision to open borders

As noted above, one of the most regrettable consequence of austerity was that it markedly increased Euroscepticism in the Southern Europe region. A second Merkel policy nonetheless achieved a similar feat, though in a different region. I refer to the 2015 decision to open borders to refugees, which has increased Euroscepticism in Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries to a degree which most in Western Europe do not appreciate. In countries such as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, opposition to this policy is extremely high, features prominently in public discourse and has proved an electoral boon for the Eurosceptic far-right.

As I previously written on this blog, it can be argued that the 2015 decision was an ethical one. What it is difficult to argue, given consequences in the CEE region, is that it was a good political decision. Many of Merkel’s Hungarian/Polish critics may well be bigots, yet good political decisions must also take into account different political realities; the 2015 decision did not do this and has estranged many CEE voters from European integration.

How will history judge Chancellor Merkel?

Most German Chancellors seem to fare well in the European/international arena; figures such as Adenauer (the re-integration of West Germany in the international community), Brandt (Ostpolitik) and Kohl (reunification) made significant achievements. Given that Merkel has presided over a fragmenting Europe, a process intimately linked to her decisions, I do not think that her record is comparable to past Chancellors. Rather, she has presided over policies on the Euro and freedom of movement which pose existential threats to the EU. In my opinion, she has been a poor Chancellor on Europe.

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