Continental Europe’s iron lady exits the stage after 16 years in power, with neither Germany nor Europe clearly better to show for it.
It was the funniest of Donald Trump’s dyspeptic relations with world leaders, particularly with women.
Germany’s own “iron lady,” the most significant European woman since British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel would war behind the scenes with the outlaw 45th occupant of the White House. That she had adored his predecessor Barack Obama—and that her 2015 decision to admit one million Middle Eastern refugees quite arguably set the stage for the populist revolts that would shake her continent with the 2016 Brexit vote, and then with the election of Trump—is besides the point.
Bureaucratic and temperamentally conservative, she was a horrendous counterpart to Trump, and it showed. Their relationship was lampooned in the early going on “Saturday Night Live”: “Hello, is this mein sweet Barack?” “No, it’s Donald Trump.” “Ah, gross.”
But 2021 would see both leaders—the populist raconteur, and the globalist elite—exit the stage, and not on their terms.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union looks set to lose the election: “25%, the worst result the dominant political force of modern German politics – the party of Angela Merkel, Helmut Kohl and Adenauer – has recorded in its history,” as the Guardian reported Sunday on a prominent exit poll. “As the first exit poll flashed up on the screens…. the Berlin headquarters of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party faithful who had gathered in the central courtyard fell silent.”
Germany is set to be led by Olaf Scholz, 63, of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany, in a variety of possible coalitions with the CDU, potentially, as well as with the more minor players: Die Linke (“The Left), the Greens, and the classically liberal Free Democratic Party. Even the libertarians are more effective in Germany.
But what is not clear is if Merkel’s 16 years in power were all that effective.
Like the Democratic Party in California, which has an equivalently sized economy, she seemed to govern almost by default. “Despite her reassuring demeanor, Merkel was a destabilizing figure,” Sam Goldman writes in the Week. “Her combination of grand moralism and parochial interest undermined the liberal ideals she professed. … Merkel promised to uphold liberalism, democracy, and European cooperation. She left them weaker in almost everything she touched.”
Merkel’s most brazen error was her iron-fisted approach to the Greeks. A nation down on its luck, Greece installed wily populists in Athens in the heady, pre-Trump, pre-Bernie days of 2015. The global establishment considered it a one-off. So, Merkel eventually won the exchange—though some, including this writer, think they should have defaulted and left the European Union altogether.
Merkel and her joyless financial lieutenant, longtime minister Wolfgang Schäuble, may have bet right the Greek government would flinch. But a year later, the British public didn’t. The “neoliberal” economic faith that guided Merkel’s thoroughly “normie” years in office utterly failed to anticipate Brexit and then the populist upheaval in Germany’s defense guarantor, the United States of America.
It was the beginning of the end for Merkel.
The next year, a rival would emerge on the Euro scene with the ascent of French President Emmanuel Macron, two-thirds her age and two times more Machiavellian. A former Rothschild banker, he was elected as a centrist technocrat, but has governed shrewdly as something closer to a centrist nationalist, even though he’s abjured the term in the past. See “How Emmanuel Macron Co-Opted The French Right” by Luke Nicastro in these pages.
And the prospect of an E.U. collapse within a generation is no harebrained tale—to say nothing of NATO disintegration. Germany has little military to speak of, while the Napoleonic Macron has been beefing up France’s global projection capabilities, and this includes proudly extolling the French language at a time of otherwise existential doubt elsewhere in the West. Macron’s old rival, the leftie Jean-Luc Melenchon, once basically argued the key to French power was keeping Germany split in two. One now imagines a future, unbelievably, where it’s France, not Germany, which effectively has the upper hand in the relationship. This all happened on Merkel’s watch.
Other facets of Merkel’s record are resigned to historical debate.
A gas alliance with Russia may have been inevitable, and if the U.S. ever gets its act together and cleaves Moscow from Beijing, one could imagine a future where such a dubious partnership is banal in the scheme of things. And Merkel, no doubt, felt she was doing the right thing with the refugees (and there is of course a case for a legalization regime here in the States as the least bad option). Still, it was a signal from a master of the universe that she couldn’t even control her own borders; these types of failures tend to bum people out. However passé, some people still believe in the nation state.
Merkel also showed moments of real decency, true to her declared liberal values such as this year, when she assailed the social media ban on Trump, her old nemesis, as antithetical to democracy. Fewer voices in the establishment on this side of the Atlantic sounded such alarm.
In the end, though, executives are judged by portfolio inherited versus portfolio bequeathed—which is why President George W. Bush is the clear, worst-ever occupant of the Oval. It’s hard to argue in 2021 that Merkel is leaving Germany, or Europe, in better shape than when she took the reins in 2005.
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