By Kenneth Maxwell
Angela Merkel has been in power for 14 years. She was first elected as chancellor of Germany in 2005. She was then re-elected in 2009, and again in 2013, and for a further term in 2018. She plans to stay on until 2021.
67% of Germans approve of this and only 29% oppose.
She is the most powerful leader within the EU. What she says matters. In particular it matters because Germany will assume the presidency of the EU during the second half of 2020. The newly installed president of the European Commission is also a German, Ursula von der Leyen, who is a Merkel protégée. Von der Leyen was between 2013 and 2020 the German Minister of Defence.
Only Vladimir Putin has been in power longer than Angela Merkel.
Putin was appointed acting President of Russia by Boris Yeltsin on December 31, 1999, having served until then as Yeltsin’s head of security. Putin’s recent constitutional changes make clear he plans to retain effective power after his current presidential term ends in 2024.
Merkel in Germany and Putin in Russia will have a lot to say about how Europe reacts to the challenging dynamics of geo-strategic change over the next few years.
Merkel, unlike the French president Emanuel Macron, says that NATO is not “brain dead.” Which is reassuring up to a point. Especially as this comes from the most powerful political leader in the European Union.
But what is most striking about Merkel’s interview with The Financial Times is not so much what she says but what she goes not say. It is certainly true that Europe, as Merkel acknowledged, is “no longer” at the center of the world. What apparently, she means is that Europe is no longer at the “interface of the Cold War.”
But this has been true for several decades.
The end of the Cold War 30 years ago brought about the reunification of Germany and the rise of German economic and political power and influence at the core of a geographically expanded European Community, and, of course, the possibility of the rise of the former East German Angela Merkel to become the chancellor of a reunited Germany.
In particular the post-Cold War years saw the incorporation of the former Soviet dominated territories to the Eastern Europe into the “new” Europe.
This is something Merkel does not comment on. Which is odd given the role of the government of Hungary, for example, that is critical to the new intra-European conflicts and disagreements over national identity, and above all over migration.
Migration is the elephant in the room here. Hungary was on the front line of the tens of thousands of refugees and economic migrants which poured over the Balkans from Turkey and Greece, from Syria and points east and west 1.1 million of them were received during 2015 into Germany. Putin has found a happy hunting ground in Hungary as a result.
There is also no mention of Turkey. Which is odd since Germany was opposed to the entrance of Turkey into the EU (and there are many Turks living in Germany) and helped broker (and in part pay for) the financial deal which keep Syrian refugees there and stopped their onward escape into Europe via Greece.
Of course, Russia has become the major outside military and political power in Syria from which a large part of the refugees fleeing the conflict come from.
It is also odd that she does not deal with the draconian economic policies forced on the southern European EU members (Greece, Portugal. Spain and Italy) by the German dominated European Central Bank (ECB) in the wake of the eurozone crisis. Nor does she talk about Poland engaged in a dispute with the EU over judicial independence.
Merkel, however, see a diminution of the position of Germany in comparison with the exponential rise of China and the resilience of the U.S. China overtook Germany in 2007 in terms of global output.
Germany, she says is “too small to exert geo-political Influence on its own.” She has led 7 trade delegations to China since 2005. Germany, she believes lacks enough skilled workers, especially in engineering and in software engineering. Germany, she says does not currently have capabilities in certain sectors, chips, hyperscalers, and battery cells and artificial intelligence (AI).
And there is major conflict within her coalition over Huawei. Currently, there is US pressure on Germany (and on other European countries including Britain) to reject the Chinese companies fifth generation telecom equipment, which the U.S. (and many in Germany and Britain) regard as a security risk.
Among the liberal democracies, the Australians have led the way on excluding the Chinese company from Australian efforts to build a 5G network, and the Australians have been active in Europe making their case as well.
But Merkel is hosting in Leipzig an EU-China summit in September.
Neither Russia nor migration figures in Merkel’s galaxy of Germany’s interests. At least they do not figure in this FT interview. Which is also very curious. Germany is involved in the mediation over the Ukraine (though President Donald Trump in his now famous telephone call to the Ukrainian President Volodymye Zelensky said in terms of” burden sharing” that “Germany talks but does nothing.”)
Berlin recently hosted a summit on the conflict in Libya. But there are no German boots on the ground in Libya which is probably just as well in the theater of the North African campaign of Generals Rommel and Montgomery during WW2.
In both of these regions Russia is now a major player. And Libya is the origin (or way station) of the African refugees and economic migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Italy and this clearly has become a major issue in Italian politics.
The U.S. has been most concerned with European dependence on Russian oil and gas. In particular, it has objected to the EU/Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline energy project in the Baltic Sea. Germany is the beneficiary of this pipeline.
Speaking of NATO, Merkel says that Germany has increased Defense spending by 40% since 2015 and will reach the 2% figure by the 2030s.
But the legacy of Ursula von der Leyen as German Defense minister tells a different story. Hans Peter Bartels of the Bundestag military commission in a damning report last year criticized the state of the German military. According to the report, less than 50% of Germany’s tanks, ships, and aircraft are available for training or operational. There is a lack of vital equipment. The Bundeswehr had to rely in Afghanistan on civilian helicopters for transport and borrowed body armor.
Merkel has promised that the current number of active personnel of 181,000 will rise to 198, 500 by 2025. But the overall picture is of a military lacking equipment, understaffed, and overly bureaucratic, and in the most important and influential EU member, with outdated equipment and a shortage of experts.
Merkel says that Europe will not be autonomous in a military sense in the foreseeable future and like Macron she speaks of European military cooperation. She says that Germany is too small to exist with geo-political influence on it own. Which is of course quite true.
In fact, Germany in the twilight years of the Merkel regime is the hollow core at the center of the European doughnut as far as defense is concerned. She says Germany is too small without Europe.
But Germany is bigger than Britain, a fact it is well worth remembering on the eve of Brexit.
The featured photo: GRANSEE, GERMANY – AUGUST 2018
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived to deliver a joint press statement prior to their meeting at Schloss Meseberg palace, the German government retreat, at Meseberg on August 18, 2018 in Gransee, Germany. The two leaders meet to discuss a variety of issues, including the current international sanctions imposed on Russia, the situation in Syria as well as the situation in eastern Ukraine. (Photo by Omer Messinger/Getty Images)
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