BERLIN — It's been said that house guests are like dead fish: After three days they start to smell. When it comes to government officials, it usually takes a little longer. Americans make a president clear out of the White House after eight years, at the latest. That's smart.
Heads of government in Germany can stay on for much longer. But most of the time, they're long past their political expiration date before the end of their term in office. Angela Merkel, who has served 11 years as chancellor, was already out of luck by the time she reached her eighth year at the helm of Germany. And yet, she remains the only reasonable choice for the job. No one else can prevent the West from imploding.
There will soon be a president in the White House who sums up his guiding principle as "Americanism, not globalism!" The way U.S. President-elect Donald Trump reads geopolitics, free trade is a conspiracy against the American job market and NATO is an alliance that makes the U.S. spend too much on defense. He considers confrontation the norm and weakness the only sin.
Trump has said Merkel is ruining Germany because she lets in too many refugees. For Trump, the European Union is the embodiment of the "globalization" that he's fighting. He thinks that Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, who advocated for Britain's departure from the union, is the true leader of Britons. Trump's chief advisor Stephen Bannon admires European nationalists such as France's Marine Le Pen, Dutch politician Geert Wilders and, like Trump, admires Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a situation like this, Europe needs leadership that prioritizes the West's solidarity above all else. If Britain had decided to stay in the EU, former British prime minister David Cameron would have been the most natural candidate for the job. But we have Theresa May, the current prime minister, who is busy drawing up a blueprint for Great Britain's self-imposed isolation.
France, a nuclear power, is about to elect a president, who in the worst-case scenario would be Le Pen, a politician who wants France to abandon the euro and maybe the EU — a decision that would fundamentally alter transnational projects.
Even if France doesn't elect Le Pen, the next president will be confronted with the difficult task of loosening regulations in France, a job that former presidents in past decades have found to be the hardest nut to crack. This struggle could supply right-wing extremists with new power. Consequently, France will not be able to lead Europe.
Can the three heads of the EU — the presidents of the EU Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission — lead Europe? Not likely, as their power is only borrowed. Martin Schulz, a German politician who is president of the EU Parliament, would like to be German chancellor. But keep in mind that no active and powerful German politician voluntarily leaves for Brussels. Under Merkel, only heads of government lead Europe, if at all, and only those backed by the powerful can prevail. In Europe, only Merkel has that power.
Obviously, Merkel doesn't have that power by virtue of her personality. Rather, Germany's economic power translates to her political heft in Europe. Merkel was able to push a rescue policy for Greece because Germany bore the risk as the main creditor. Her plan to distribute refugees was ineffective because she lacked such leverage. Her deal with Turkey passed only because European countries expected some relief from the migrant crisis.
Merkel has even when, and especially when, she was in power, not behaved in the smartest manner. Her insistence on fiscal austerity forced the European Central Bank to take countermeasures that have been the wind in the sails of eurosceptics worldwide.
Merkel has the power and, even if you take that away from her, there is no one with her authority and experience. Really nobody. Maybe Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi? A lightweight. And no, no one in Europe can save the union's cohesion. You can regret that, but you have to accept it.
Merkel has to do the job
In a way, we have to be thankful that Merkel is a woman free of any noticeable principles and who doesn't feel bound to yesterday's chatter. In order to hold together the EU and to lessen political riots, it'll be necessary to focus on things that might not be good or popular for Germany from an economic point of view. Think euro bonds, big European infrastructure projects, fiscal stimulus measures and improving the mobility of future employees.
These policies are necessary to raise the attractiveness of membership to the EU. Britain's exit from the union will have to pass as smoothly as possible. We must resist the temptation to punish the country. We'll have to open the European market to Britain. A unified EU is vital to negotiating a new world economic order with the U.S. and China. Trump threatens to penalize unfair trade partners with punitive tariffs that will most likely hit China first. Eventually, they will strike Germany too.
A trade war between Washington and Peking would harm Germany. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is already dead. Free trade must be rescued. NATO must be prevented from falling apart. Trump's criticism of European partners is not totally unjustified. If the Republican sees NATO as just a "deal," Europe will have to convince him that NATO means good business for America. Above all, Europeans must spend more money and use it more wisely — "More bang for the buck," as former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower put it.
These are the next tasks, and they require a best-case scenario, one where the EU survives and Trump does not turn his back on NATO. If the EU falls apart and Trump looks for a deal with Putin, the consequences are incalculable.
Here again, you don't want a newcomer as German chancellor. Who could do Merkel's job? Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union, seems overwhelmed by the state of Bavaria alone. Finance minister Wolfgang Schauble doesn't have what it takes. He couldn't fight long-time chancellor Helmut Kohl. He's not a leader. Defense minister Ursula von der Leyen is missing the patience. Christian Democrat Jens Spahn is alert and is often called the union's junior hope. But he's too busy making provocative statements. He's not a statesman.
No, Merkel has to do the job. She lacks a distinctive image and is therefore capable of working with anyone: the Social Democratic Party, the Greens, the Free Democratic Party and any combination of the three. Sometimes being gray is a virtue if the alternative wears the colors of the new nationalists.