Many serious people used to believe that Europe’s only true leader was Angela Merkel. They thought the German chancellor had understood the need for drastic change in the European Union for the bloc to compete against rising Asian powers. Perhaps they were right back then. What has emerged today, however, is that Merkel is an excellent political tactician but lacks real vision and will power. As far as I’m concerned, it was her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who was a true leader. He had a unique way of addressing citizens and achieved a social contract which demanded great sacrifices on the part of the average German, but made Germany the economic power that it is today. He quit politics and now works for Gazprom, but history will be very positively inclined toward him.
Merkel follows opinion polls, goes with the flow and promises not to change the status quo. She despises big statements. Ever since the eurozone crisis started she has been moving slowly, without setting a clear course, waiting until the very last minute to make crucial, overdue decisions. Lately, she also appears – and this despite her omnipotence in the polls – to be giving in to local German populism. Her decision to ban energy-producing nuclear plants and to lower the retirement age of many employees are two examples of populist decisions that will affect Germany in the future.
The chancellor’s nightmare is the situation in France. She knows that Germany’s southwestern neighbor is facing major structural problems and that the specter of international markets hangs over the country. Francois Holland is proving inadequate and Berlin will not be able to do much to save France if the troubles that everyone thought would begin last winter end up starting this winter. This is nothing short of a complete nightmare for Merkel, for she knows that if France falls, the entire European project will be dangerously shaken.
Merkel, in other words, is no Margaret Thatcher – not in terms of her opinions, but in that she doesn’t come across as a leader. In contrast to what we in the south believe, the Germans are not very comfortable in the role of Europe’s leader and perhaps this is why they did not vote for a more dynamic chancellor; nor is Germany’s elite comfortable being left without a powerful France, for despite all their differences and bad chemistry, the system of European checks and balances actually operates.
Europe is now entering a particularly interesting period that will determine the fate of the euro and the European project. A senior Economist analyst recently noted that Germany was right to insist on major structural changes across Europe, but was wrong in its insistence on fiscal adjustment in such a short period of time. Europe will have to take major decisions and the question is whether these will be sufficiently dynamic and timely, or whether they will be inadequate and too late. Judging from Merkel’s style, we shouldn’t expect too much.