ATHENS — It was only recently that Germany seemed like a rock of stability in an otherwise unpredictable world, a country to which other EU members turned desperately for leadership and direction.
Today, things couldn’t be more different. With attempts to form a government in their fourth month, following an unexpectedly poor election performance by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, it’s in Berlin that things are looking desperate. Never mind trying to lead Europe. It’s not clear that Berlin can even lead Germany.
The prevailing sense in the German capital is that the country needs to change course. The caretaker government headed by Merkel can muddle on, but it can’t define an agenda — neither domestically nor on the European stage.
Meanwhile, the only thing on which the winners and losers of the September 2017 election can truly agree is that “business as usual” can’t go on. Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats with whom they are negotiating don’t share a joint vision for the country — let alone the EU.
The trouble for Berlin — and thus for Brussels — is that Germany’s political impasse is likely a symptom of deeper troubles in the way the country is governed
The trouble for Berlin — and thus for Brussels — is that Germany’s political impasse is likely a symptom of deeper troubles in the way the country is governed.
The outcome of the elections was strongly influenced by the twin issues of refugees and migration. As is increasingly becoming apparent, the “welcome culture” of mid-2015 has been replaced with debates about limiting the number of arriving refugees, curtailing family reunification and expediting deportations, as well as linking crime statistics to refugees and migrants.
Many in the country now associate the decision to briefly open the country’s doors to refugees with a loss of control (Kontrollverlust). Some even go further, claiming that it was not a loss of control, but a decision not to control (Kontrollverzicht). And indeed, Germany’s judicial system, municipal administrations and regional authorities are at breaking point. They do not have the capacity to handle the sheer volume of asylum seekers.
For a stability-centered society like Germany, the perception that state institutions are losing control and cannot deliver is political dynamite. And the refugee issue is just one way in which Kontrollverlust is being felt.
The terrorist attack carried out by Moroccan-born Anis Amri at a Berlin Christmas market in 2016 was another painful example of loss of control. The relatives of the attack’s 12 victims have publicly expressed their anger at the federal German authorities for the time it took to address their loss.
The violent events surrounding the G20 summit in Hamburg last June also left the impression on residents that the police had temporarily lost control of the city’s streets to self-styled anarchists and widespread looting.
Germany is in flux, and the direction these developments are taking are not at all promising
The bungled construction of Berlin’s new international airport, already delayed by more than two years, is another famous example of government impotency. Similarly, in the southern city of Stuttgart, the hugely controversial modernization of the central train station — “Stuttgart 21” — will take much longer than planned, at exorbitant cost overruns.
Put together, these failings paint a picture of deep political malaise. It’s no big surprise, in this context, that the project of forming a new government in Berlin should take so long.
Germany is in flux, and the direction these developments are taking are not at all promising. To expect or ask for “German leadership” under these circumstances is illusory at best and politically naïve at worst.
Europe should prepare itself for a prolonged political vacuum in Germany. Once we have a new government in Berlin, a sigh of relief may be in order in Paris, Brussels and Athens. But even then, it would be foolish to place much faith in German leadership.
Jens Bastian is an independent financial sector analyst and economic consultant based in Athens.