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Why Merkel's Victory Was A Big Win For Europe (But Now The Hard Part)

At the center of it all
At the center of it all
Thomas Straubhaar

BERLIN – Germany has voted for stability and consensus. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position has been confirmed with a convincing result. She has been entrusted with power for another four years, and will continue to lead the country with her cautious, considered politics. Strategy and long-term success form the yardstick for her short-term tactics. It is not the means, but the end that determines her actions.

It is the politics of small increments, and Merkel's careful driving through the fog of our uncertain times is more sensible than careening toward the edge of a precipice.

The election results show how wide a consensus exists among the German public about important questions concerning the future. This is especially true when it comes to European policy.

The Alternative for Germany party, which promised a radical renegotiation of Germany’s role in Europe, and an end to the euro, gained a significant number of votes, but its status as a protest party means that many of these came from the critical, disillusioned, frustrated and disadvantaged from both ends of the political spectrum. Even with these protest votes, Alternative for Germany did not manage to break the 5% mark needed to gain representation in the Bundestag. That alone shows how incredibly strong the political center is in Germany and how weak the extreme fringes remain.

A single currency nation

Independently of political allegiance, there is broad agreement throughout Germany about the truly important questions of democracy, the rule of law, the market economy and European policy.

Of course many are angry that German taxes are paying for the carelessness of others. Nobody wants to see Germany supplying a bottomless pit of money or sharing the debts of other countries. Everyone wants the burden to be shared fairly. Nevertheless, the euro skeptics cannot convince 5% of Germans to support them in their call for a fundamental change of direction, a withdrawal from the euro and a return to the Deutschmark.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Germans want to stick with the euro. But it cannot be denied that this loyalty is shot through with worries, and is mainly due to the German public’s trust in Angela Merkel. With all due respect to the Chancellor, this is not a solid foundation on which to build a sustainable policy.

Whichever party goes into coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU would be well advised to put Europe at the top of the agenda. There needs to be a public debate about Europe, not only about the political aspects, but also the social and economic future of the continent. It would be naive to dismiss the euro skeptics as radicals and brush their arguments aside.

The coalition negotiations will need to include a debate about what Europe means for Germany and how Germany understands her role in Europe. The discussion must go far beyond simply weighing up the financial costs and benefits of saving the euro – the exact nature of these costs and benefits, the ways in which they are measured, compared and balanced, are anything but simple questions.

There are no exact truths

Cost-benefit calculations are tricky enough in any situation, let alone when it comes to European policy. Unlike in economics textbooks or scientific laboratories, in the highly complex jumble of the real world there are no infallible laws or exact truths.

When it comes to questions about fairness and participation, majority decisions and the protection of minorities, each society and age finds its own “right” answers. The Deutschmark supporters would do well to remember that when they demand an end to the still youthful euro because the economic balance sheet seems to have gone into the red.

Now that the national elections are over, Germany needs to develop a vision of Europe for the 21st century. Where should Europe go politically, socially and economically, and what role should Germany play? Do Germans want a United States of Europe or a Europe of nation-states? What should be organized centrally in Brussels and what should remain the domain of individual countries? As part of this public debate, Alternative for Germany should be shown under what conditions and with what costs the euro zone can be stabilized.

The vision for Europe should not mean a massive shake-up. Quite the opposite. It should be a long-term goal that allows the continent to orientate itself in the fog. If the new German government knows what its people want, it can begin taking the small steps on a long road to the kind of Europe its citizens want to see.

But (as Madame Merkel knows) there’s no rush: Germany and Europe should take their time.

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