So the German people have spoken, and the European Union will continue to be a tortoise. Next May, following elections to the European parliament, we will discover just how slow and unhappy a creature it is. Then, across the next decade, a larger, Aesopian question will be posed: can the European tortoise somehow outrun the American eagle and the Chinese dragon? Or will it at least keep pace with them?
Resounding though ‘Mutti’ (Mummy or Mom) Angela Merkel’s election victory was, Germany’s new government still has to be formed. In the Federal Republic, such coalition talks traditionally happen at the pace, and with all the grace, of tortoises mating. Assuming the result is a so-called ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats, there should be a small but desirable adjustment in Germany’s policy towards the Eurozone.
On September 23, Merkel suggested that there would be no change in her own approach to a southern Europe traumatized by debt, austerity and depression (in both the economic and psychological senses of the word). Referring to the impressive way in which Germany managed down its own unit labour costs and restored its competitiveness, she said: “What we have done, everyone else can do.”
The Social Democrats understand a little better, or perhaps just express more frankly, that the economics of Eurozone recovery are not that simple. Some debt burdens are just unsustainable. Improved supply also requires demand. But since the Social Democrats will be the junior partner in this coalition (if that is what emerges), since the results on which they will be judged by voters are primarily domestic, and since most German voters don’t want to pay another cent for allegedly feckless southerners, those Eurozone policy adjustments will be modest.
At best, the soft underbelly of the European tortoise — debt and depression-ridden southern Europe —will continue to bleed. At worst, it will haemorrhage, politically as well as economically. As Costas Douzinas noted in The Guardian recently, the Greek economy has shrunk by 25 per cent, with youth unemployment at around 70 per cent and a growing, not diminishing, national debt-to-GDP ratio now approaching 175 per cent. In Greece, more social misery and political extremism seem inevitable. Elsewhere, in Spain and Ireland for example, painful reforms are beginning to show some slow, uncertain results.
In the German election, the political centre held. In next May’s 28-country elections to the European parliament, that is less likely. Representatives of protest parties of all shapes and colours, from Greece’s fascist Golden Dawn to England’s UK Independence Party, from the partly post-communist The Left in Germany (which is back in the Bundestag, unlike the liberal Free Democrats) to Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, might fill those parliamentary seats in Brussels. If this happens, the European parliament will become a glass house full of people throwing stones. Yet that fragmentation will also compel the mainstream, pan-European alliances of conservative, liberal and socialist parties to work more closely together, thus producing a kind of implicit grand coalition in the Brussels parliament, as well as (probably) an explicit one in the Berlin one.
At the same time, Merkel will be even more inclined than she is already to run the European show by pragmatic inter-governmental deal-making, whether in the Eurozone of 18 states (now that Latvia has adopted the euro) or the EU of 28 (now that Croatia has joined the larger club). But Merkel’s problem is that she has, in neither of the other two leading powers of the EU, a strategic partner.
France’s Francois Hollande is the Little President Who Would — but his country is weakened by its own domestic economic problems and slowness to reform. Britain’s David Cameron, with a stable coalition government and a slowly recovering, north European free market economy, could in theory be that partner. In practice, his eurosceptic Conservative party and his own tactical miscalculations have launched him on a foolish course of attempted ‘renegotiation’ of the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU. In short, Britain could, but won’t; France would, but can’t. That leaves Merkel as Europe’s single Mutti. She has a few solid medium-size partners in countries like Poland, but they alone are not enough.
So there you have the EU for the foreseeable future: a giant, weary tortoise, with chancellor Merkel sitting astride its shell, trying to steer its woozy head and coax its bleeding underbelly across stony ground. Yet before one falls into deepest melancholy, as a European, it’s worth taking a leaf out of Aesop’s book and looking at the competition — the American eagle and the Chinese dragon. After all, in Aesop’s fable, it was as much the hare that lost as it was the tortoise that won.
I’m watching the German and European slow motion spectacle from the United States of America. But my American television screen is filled with a partisan style of politics that is the diametric opposite of Germany’s centrist, consensual, coalition-building democracy. While Berlin’s Christian and Social Democrats negotiate their incremental differences, Washington is engulfed in shrieking brinkmanship, like a giant game of ‘Chicken’, with Republicans threatening not to lift the country’s national debt ceiling unless that ghastly European-style Obamacare can be brought down. There is even talk of a government shutdown in just a few days’ time. Imagine that happening in the US’s erstwhile governance pupil, and now exemplar, the Federal Republic of Germany. While the American private sector is recovering some of its legendary dynamism, this country still faces deep problems of imperial and welfare overstretch, and neglected infrastructure.
And rising China? The failure of president Xi Jinping’s new administration to show any sign of political reform makes a deeper crisis in that country ever more probable at some point over the next decade. The Financial Times’s Jamil Anderlini reports a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China saying this: “We just had a seminar with a big group of very influential party members and they were asking us how long we think the party will be in charge and what we have planned when it collapses. To be honest, this is a question that everyone in China is asking but I’m afraid it’s very difficult to answer.”
In short, the world’s three giant economies all have substantial political problems, of strikingly different kinds. Europe’s Merkelian tortoise will not gather speed any time soon, but nor is it now likely to take a big fall. Can we say the same of the eagle and the dragon?