Wednesday 21 August 2019

Chancellor Merkel's goose might be cooked - but all of Europe will miss her if she goes

Angela Merkel is doing our dirty work for us, and I wish we had a politician with an ounce of her courage, writes Donal Lynch

German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at a Christmas market in Berlin one day after a truck ran into the crowded Christmas market in Berlin. Photo: AP
German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at a Christmas market in Berlin one day after a truck ran into the crowded Christmas market in Berlin. Photo: AP

Christmas is a time when mothers take centre stage. Angela Merkel doesn't have any kids to worry about, but she does have a nation of 80 million who call her Mutti. To them she has the appeal of a thrifty housewife and, like any good mammy, comes across as a sober voice of common sense in a post-truth world.

To the rest of us, there was never anything particularly maternal about her. She turned the screws on us with a Nurse Ratched coolness during the banking crisis and she has periodically made threatening noises about our tax regime.

She was the unsmiling face of austerity - one thinks of the Irish football fans with their 'Angela Merkel thinks we're at work' banner. She presides over zero growth in the eurozone, youth unemployment at record levels, the rise of radical parties, the growth of Euroscepticism and the isolation of Germany. If she goes now, at the end of a torrid year of steadily mounting pressure over her open-door migration policy and the attack in Berlin, it will surely weaken our hand in Brexit talks with Britain.

But in a year that also featured Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Angela Merkel's political demise might not register here as quite as apocalyptic.

And yet we should loudly mourn Merkel if she goes. Among the leaderships of all the major powers, she looks very much like the last adult in charge.

To her left, we have Theresa May, with her right-leaning rhetoric and ridiculous leather flares. To her left, the unhinged populism of Trump. Merkel is the anti-populist. Only she would risk the anti-photo op of going to a migrant centre herself to explain to those unlucky few who didn't get in to Germany why they were being refused.

She has all but sacrificed her hunger for power on the altar of deeply held humanitarian principles. By taking in so many refugees, Germany has enabled countries like Ireland to shirk their responsibilities.

Not taking our share of migrants has meant that we never had to take the risk of right-wing rhetoric becoming mainstream here (Ireland's lunatic fringe tends to lean left).

Her political bravery has shielded us the type of awkward discussions about nationhood and integration that are taking place in other countries. Put simply, she's doing our dirty work for us.

There's also the small matter that this is the best Germany we've ever had. Merkel might be the last German leader who considers that Germany's interests and the interests of a healthy European Union are inextricably interlinked.

While Trump blusters about a wall, possibly having no idea of the human cost of that concept, Merkel lived the first 35 years of her life behind the Iron Curtain. She comes from a generation of Germans who grew up after the war and have never forgotten its lessons or quite cleansed themselves of the guilt for their country's role in causing it.

She saw how mass immigration into West Germany built the reunified country into an economic superpower. The person who comes after her may well be as venally self-serving on behalf of Germany as our own leaders are on behalf of Ireland.

She has shepherded Europe through not one but two enormous crises, either of which could have meant the end of the union that has kept peace on the continent for seven decades.

The first was thrust upon her - the slow-moving crisis over the euro, caused in large part by the default of a single member, Greece. Its resolution came at the glacial pace that so severely tested the patience of Germans that they have made it into a verb: Merkeling.

The second crisis has, of course, been the migration of more than a million displaced Middle Eastern refugees into Germany. Throwing open her country's doors in the fashion she did is probably the most audacious and statesmanly move we have seen from a world leader in our lifetime. She gave her reasons thus: "In many regions war and terror prevail. States disintegrate. For many years we have read about this. We have heard about it. We have seen it on TV. But we had not yet sufficiently understood that what happens in Aleppo and Mosul can affect Essen or Stuttgart. We have to face that now."

She told Germans she could not negotiate with Turkey while refusing to help it deal with the millions of displaced people massing on its eastern border. She restated the obvious, that it would be immoral to leave people fleeing war and terror to die in the Mediterranean Sea.

Listening to her stand up to racism and xenophobia masquerading as civic concern, you realise we don't have a single politician here with an ounce of her guts or passion.

Angela Merkel does not believe in multiculturalism - the idea that these people will come and live in semi-ghettoised communities. She believes instead that they should be integrated, as much as possible, into European society. This is why her recent call for a ban on full face coverings, the niqab, was really not a compromise with the right in her own party, but highly consistent with her vision all along.

We might have wished for a leader like her. A polled majority of Irish people think we should be taking in more refugees from Syria (the reality is that we take in virtually everyone from Syria who comes here - the issue is that not many of them make it this far). Just as people are slowly beginning to understand that "the homeless crisis" and "those junkies I see around town" are one and the same issue, so people now have an inkling that the rowdy, grabby mobs of Cologne and that cute dust-covered boy are also part of the same issue.

Whether there is a direct link between the migrants in Germany and the events last week seems unlikely, although that was the initial presumption.

Last week one German politician accused Merkel of having blood on her hands over the Berlin market dead, but the reality is most major European capitals have seen terrorist attacks. Berlin was attacked in spite of, not because of, its refugee policies.

That viewpoint holds no water amid the populist witch-hunt going on in Germany. The site of the Christmas market in Berlin was eerily empty this weekend and a feeling of deep unease pervades a city that was at the forefront of welcoming migrants.

"It's Christmastime, there's no need to be afraid," goes one of the most repeated songs of the festive season, but many Germans fear for themselves and for their country. And, for once, the calming voice of Mutti is not enough.

If she goes in 2017 she can still say she did more than any other European politician about the single biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. And when we look back in a generation, she will be remembered as the greatest German leader since Adenauer.

Sunday Independent

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