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A Long Farewell to Chancellor Angela Merkel? - Sławomir Dębski interviews Professor Marek Cichocki

Sławomir Dębski

DĘBSKI: Four times in a row, Angela Merkel has led CDU/CSU to victory, this time in last year’s parliamentary elections. Although negotiations are still underway on a governing coalition and the outcome is difficult to predict, it once again may be a grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD. What we know for certain is that Chancellor Merkel has been at Germany’s helm for 12 years, and if she succeeds in forming a new cabinet, she will become the longest-serving head of government in the country’s post-war history. What imprint has she left on German society?

PROF. CICHOCKI: Merkel has thoroughly transformed German politics, both domestically and externally. Her German version of post-politics gave the nation a strong sense of stability and consensus. Today, however, it is increasingly underpinned by fears of the outside world, largely perceived as a threat and a challenge. As for the domestic conflicts—political and social—Merkel has managed to “disarm” them ideologically, but at the price of emasculating German political thinking and German public life. Such is the fallout from the grand coalitions of right- and left-wing parties—the parties of the German establishment. Characteristically, according to the “freedom index” of the John Stuart Mill Institute in Heidelberg, 57% Germans declare that today it is not possible to freely express political views in their country. Thus, stability and consensus—strengthened in recent years by the rule of grand coalitions, which in practice meant no major parliamentary opposition—do carry a price. They also tend to generate the establishment vs. rest of society dichotomy, which is politically dangerous in the long run.

What kind of price do you have in mind? Opinions about Germany sinking into political chaos can indeed be found in the European press, but aren’t they just signs of journalistic sensationalism? The notion of “German chaos”, after all, still sounds like a political oxymoron. My impression is that these sentiments will be forgotten the day after Merkel succeeds in forming her cabinet.

Merkel’s 12 years of rule has also changed German society, which politically is now a barren land, with high support for the AfD and the FPD, exponents of anti-establishment national and liberal populism. With her European and global policies, Merkel instilled in society a strong sense of Germany’s special mission as the only country responsible for the future of Europe. This conviction, incidentally, was among the causes leading to the mass-migration crisis and the decision—taken with no consultations—to open the German borders in September 2015. With that single decision, Merkel changed German society for years to come. It remains to be seen what course this change is going to take and what its consequences will be. There is no doubt, however, that by bringing cultural conflict into the mainstream of German political debate and into German society, Merkel has vitiated her key achievements crucial for governance: stability, consensus, and predictability. This is the price we are talking about.

You said that Chancellor Merkel’s decision about refugees was taken without consulting other Member States. This is not the first time Germany has acted on its own, and often in its own interests. In so doing, Germany frequently pronounced itself to be “Europe” or to act on Europe’s behalf, even without any political or legal grounds to support such claims.

Merkel moved German polics out of the institutional area. For over a decade at the top, she accumulated a great deal of informal power, and her realisation of this has led to a change in her political behaviour. While aware that she could persuade others to her preferences if she only invested the time and political capital, she began instead to skip the consultation stage under pressure of time or whenever she wished to save her political capital. This may have been a deliberate choice initially, but with time it became habit. She started making decisions in a way that contradicted German political tradition and EU rules, and without any consultation with her own political base, her government, or her party.

This seems to be a case of political will over law or just sheer political arrogance, doesn’t it?

In my book, it is neither. An experienced political animal with excellent intuition, Merkel sniffed out the corrosion of what has been the great post-World War II achievement of the West, namely the institutionalism of international politics. We in Poland understand this well, too. New trends are always more discernible to those at the edge of the system than those in its safe heartland.

Juliusz Mieroszewski wrote about “border-region communities”. Do you think that Merkel, too, is a denizen of the European borderlands who, sooner than others, has heard the faint hoofbeats of, perhaps, the horsemen of the new European apocalypse?

I believe that her firm grasp of the meaning of post-politics should be traced precisely to the fact that she comes from outside the West German establishment. Do you remember how Kohl portrayed her in his scandalising memoirs? As a country bumpkin who did not know how to use a fork and knife properly. And to the Rhineland Germans, she indeed was such a person, a provincial from the distant east, someone who comes from Germany’s backwoods—the DDR. That proved to be a serious error of judgement.

In other words, Kohl did not consider her “one of us”?

The German establishment was unlikely to hold a daughter of a provincial pastor in particularly high esteem. But she understood better than others the changes in the way politics was being run. In this respect, she came to similar conclusions as Obama: she discovered that politics is exercised based on public mood and one’s communication with the electorate, not through institutions. As I see it, this is precisely the point that sets Merkel apart from Schröder or Kohl.

Germany is said to be too small to become a global power and too big to accept the role of check-issuer in Europe. We tend to forget that calls for Germany to abandon self-restraint and seek global power status were being made quite a while ago by Chancellor Schröder. It was on his watch that Germany openly began to push for reform of the UN Security Council that would give the country a permanent seat on that body. Merkel gave up on the idea—but is this a change of tactics or philosophy? Germany, after all, has not abandoned its aspirations for a stronger presence on the global political scene.

In global politics, Germany has so far been shielded by the fairly secure, protective umbrella of the United States as the guardian of global governance. Under this umbrella—a liberal lex mercatoria, involving free trade and its institutions—Germany was able to evolve into the most powerful trading nation in Europe, elbowing to capture an increasing share of global traffic. For this reason, Germany’s foreign policy and its global aspirations have been primarily a function of the country’s trade policy. Germany has played important roles on all emerging markets. Its aggressive inroads into China and Russia reflect aspirations whose nature is economic and commercial, not geopolitical. Consequently, the UN reform, with a permanent Security Council seat for Germany, has never been a priority for Merkel.

Does that explain the German anxieties following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president? The opinions presented by German politicians, including cabinet ministers, sounded hysterical compared to the expressions of concern by other European statesmen.

For Germany, Trump’s victory and the threat of abrogation of lex mercatoria brought the prospect—perhaps for the first time in post-World War II history—of isolation in efforts to determine the future shape of global governance. In that case, the country’s decisions about the liberal international economic order would have to be taken exclusively on its own account. The Germans could lead this process, but they do not consider themselves prepared for that, having always preferred methods that disperse responsibility. Open German leadership would not be seen as politically correct anywhere in the world, and this is why Germany has intuitively opted for various models involving shared management and backseat leadership. The hypothetical abandonment by the United States of its role as formal leader of the free world would mean that Germany would lose its convenient status of a wealthy passenger.

How does this model of German leadership work in Europe?

Following the euro-area crisis and the response it induced, Merkel has realised she no longer needs Germany’s dominant position in the EU to be institutionalised or formalised. She created an entire system in which Germany effectively exercises power in the European Union using political and informal instruments. Consequently, key decisions of an institutional or legal nature have been taken after political decisions adopted in a wholly non-transparent manner, behind closed doors, and in tight-knit groups. This method proved highly effective in crisis management in Germany, but from the EU perspective it meant a sea change from the previous logic of the bloc’s functioning.

Thus, Merkel’s approach to Germany’s Europe policy has been evolving. In your opinion, is Merkel now conducting this policy in a different way than 10 years ago?

When Merkel took over, she had an auteur vision of Europe policy based on the idea that Germany was capable of playing a “stabilising hegemon” role. To some observers, this was in fact a replica of a certain pattern of German policy post-1871. Bismarck, too, believed that a united Germany could act as such a “stabilising hegemon” in relations with other European powers. My impression is that today—following the financial and mass-migration crises and after [the Brexit referendum]—we see problems rooted in the abject failure of that concept. Simply put, Germany has been anything but a “stabilising hegemon”.

Do you perceive Brexit as a turning point in Germany’s Europe policy?

Perhaps. Brexit is proof that the role of Europe’s “stabilising hegemon” is beyond Germany’s reach. For a number of reasons, the country is not strong enough to achieve that.

While representing President Lech Kaczyński, you acted as a sherpa in negotiations on a new European treaty subsequently signed in Lisbon. Ten years on, is Germany satisfied with the outcome?

The Lisbon Treaty was important for Germany since it formalised its dominant role in the European Union’s decision-making process, and for the same reason it still is. This could be seen for example in September 2015, when majority voting was applied to adopt the decision enforcing the relocation of refugees to Member States, something which today is the subject of political and legal dispute. Merkel continues to manage integration using largely informal instruments, and this has worked perfectly well, especially in the time of France’s political weakness under President François Hollande. Things may take a different course with Macron in office and after Brexit, for which Merkel can indeed be seen as responsible to some extent.

There can be no doubt that Brexit will change Europe thoroughly, and that Germany’s preponderance in the European Union will increase further. This can already be noticed in Washington, on Capitol Hill, among the expert community and even within the Trump administration, where the conviction is growing that Germany will replace the United Kingdom as the top U.S. ally in Europe. Should all this be taken to mean that Europe’s future will be determined in Berlin, or perhaps along the Berlin-Paris axis?

This is anything but obvious. The German attitude towards the U.S. has never been unequivocally positive. While fully benefitting from the U.S. umbrella in terms of security policy and global free trade, Germany has had a strong bias against America, which now—courtesy of Trump—has turned into something bordering on collective hysteria. Trump indeed can change the nature of U.S. relations with Europe, and with Germany, because he openly articulates the differences Obama kept under wraps during his two terms in office, resorting to the rhetoric of global ethics and postmodern liberalism. Trump now brutally removes this veil, bringing into the open principal differences not confined to differences of interests—these could always be smoothed out in negotiations—but which are of the nature of deep ideological differences. The key question is, can Germany overcome its aversion to America and, at the same time, be ready to conduct a more independent policy, without the U.S. umbrella and without mutual commitments? And will such independence bring any good for Europe?

And what about the tandem?

Given the centrifugal forces within the EU set in motion by factors that include Germany’s misguided crisis-management policy, I am afraid that we will see a rather unreflective, instinctive process of Germany and France becoming closer, coupled with increasing tensions in Germany’s relations with Central European states. The German-French tandem will no longer have the advantage of promoting integration and will actually function at the expense of the integrity of the present Union.

On 9 November 2017, speaking at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Prime Minister Beata Szydło delivered an important speech about Poland’s Europe policy. We both know that such pronouncements are made extremely rarely, heads of government being highly reluctant to give political speeches about the future of Europe. Prime Minister Szydło said that Poland would seek a Europe based on the principle of “the free with the free, the equal with the equal”, and that in the debate on Europe’s future, Poland would call for the voices of smaller Member States to be heard and attended to. How is this vision received in Berlin?

I think it is not quite intelligible to Berlin. If we look at the Polish-German relations over the past decade, we can see at least two diametrically different ideas followed in Polish policy. The first, linked with the Donald Tusk era, proceeded from the assumption that Germany’s growing position in the EU would provide a kind of insurance policy on Central European security. But that meant linking the whole region with Germany, not only economically—which had already been the case for a long time—but also politically. Such thinking must have underlain Poland’s premature declaration to enter the euro area by 2011. But as was revealed by the subsequent financial crisis and by Greece’s predicament, the German understanding of crisis management may bring a political catastrophe for smaller Member States hit by economic problems and may take away sovereignty from democratic societies. That was a very important lesson, I believe, and it had its part in influencing the emergence of a new plan in Poland after the 2015 elections, namely to consolidate Central Europe within the framework of the Three Seas Initiative. I see it as an obvious attempt to search for some kind of counterbalance to Germany involving new effective routes of regional development. But the situation in Europe has been changing dynamically, and in today’s relations with Germany it would be advisable to consider new determinants, and especially the consequences of Brexit. There is a fundamental change in the intra-EU balance of forces, appended with the Ceasarist ambitions of the new French president, and the slow yet perceptible destabilisation of Germany’s internal politics. All of these represent threats, but we may try to turn them into opportunities. We must not forget, though, the old Polish proverb that one can pray to God to win the lottery, but only after buying a ticket.

I share this view, but it must be noted that the Polish-German political game is not helped by Germany’s passive policy towards the whole region. One could say that following the enlargements of the European Union and NATO to include states in the Three Seas area, the German policy tended to be confined to the defence of the status quo. Berlin ceased to produce offers of real political cooperation. Rather, where Berlin did send some political signals, these were mostly negative. Using the terminology of contract bridge, any opening of the auction—that is, an invitation to a political conversation—was followed by Germany’s “pass”. The list of examples supporting this statement is fairly long, and it includes: ignoring the region’s objections to Nord Stream 1 and 2; torpedoing the idea of appending the European treaties with energy-security provisions; squeezing Poland out of the Normandy format, and thus breaking up the Polish-German tandem that influenced the European Union’s policy towards Eastern Europe; taking a negative approach to the Visegrad Group and to the region’s cooperation with China in the 16+1 format; and finally, opposing and seeking to torpedo the Three Seas project. How can we explain the negative force used by Germany in Central Europe and the passive nature of its policy in the region?

Germany’s policy towards Central European states is focused on defending its own interests. This is rooted in history. The German state has pursued its policy in Europe since the mid-19th century. Throughout that period, Poland and the region were perceived as dependencies of foreign powers—America’s “Trojan horse”—or spheres of influence of real political players. Germany has scant experience seeing Poland as a political partner in Europe. To tell the truth, we also have a similar problem in our attitude towards Germany, given that we have largely experienced that country through the prism of threat, and at some point, through the prism of extermination. Thus, both parties are, in a way, hostages to history. Fortunately, in our relations today, the threat is no longer a military one and the problems are confined to economic interests and cultural differences, frequently within the geopolitical triangle of America, the EU, and Russia. They still exert an existential impact on our future. The map of Europe did change fundamentally after 1989, and now we should see to it that this change solidifies rather than crumbles. From this perspective, the relations between Poland and Germany are of no small importance indeed.

Thank you for the conversation.