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The never-ending story of Angela Merkel

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 21 July 2017

Should you be familiar with German children’s literature, you would have encountered a curious character: the illusory giant (Scheinriese).

In the works of Michael Ende, best known for his The Never-Ending Story, there is a fearsome giant called Herr Tur Tur. Just as all proper giants, Herr Tur Tur is so big and tall that he can be seen from far away.

But there is something rather unusual about the giant Herr Tur Tur. The closer you get to him, the more he shrinks in size. He shrinks so much that when you stand right in front of him he is just an ordinarily sized and harmless person.

As it turns out, there is a political equivalent to poor Herr Tur Tur. It is none other than Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. That is the gist of a new collection of essays published under the sober title Merkel: A critical balance.

Edited by business journalist Philip Plickert, it brings together 22 German and international senior academics and commentators to shed light on Merkel’s 12 years in the chancellery. It has already reached ninth place in Germany’s non-fiction book charts.

In his introduction, Plickert sets the tone by describing Merkel as the illusory giant of German politics. A seemingly impressive figure, regarded by some as the acting leader of the free world, but a life-sized politician with a poor policy record once you seriously analyse her policies. And there is plenty of serious analysis offered in Plickert’s book.

As diverse as Plickert’s contributors are, they are united in their verdict. Merkel is the most over-estimated politician in the world – and possibly also one of the worst chancellors of post-war Germany.

For a New Zealand audience, this conclusion may require some explanation. At least it does not align with the commonly held perception that Merkel is a beacon of stability in a fragile world. Nor does it easily square with Germany’s image as the economic powerhouse of Europe.

Unfortunately, both Merkel’s wise leadership and Germany’s economic strength are a mirage. Merkel is an ordinary politician with few discernible principles and a long record of costly mistakes.

As historian Dominik Geppert put it in his essay, the defining characteristic of Merkel’s politics is her frequent U-turns. Indeed, she has held practically every position over her political career and the very opposite. For the military draft and then against it. For nuclear power and then against it. Against bailing out other European countries and then for it. Against marriage equality before helping to introduce it.

And Germany? Just like Merkel, it is not quite what it seems. It’s a country experiencing a boom with record employment figures, a budget surplus and steady economic growth. But it is an unsustainable boom fuelled by the European Central Bank’s ultra-expansionary monetary policy. Under the surface, however, the seeds of destruction have been sown – by Merkel’s government.

As many of the authors in Plickert’s book point out, Merkel has burdened her country with enormous long-term liabilities. She often did so in response to short-term political impasses. In this way, Merkel has secured her position as the nearly unrivalled political leader she is. But the costly results of her actions will only become visible long after she will have left the scene.

Three costly policy failures exemplify Merkel’s record: her actions in the euro crisis, her energy policy and her decision to temporarily open Germany’s borders to more than a million refugees.

In the euro crisis, Merkel’s government lacked the courage to stick to the rules of Europe’s monetary union that would have prevented a pooling of debt. Instead, she accepted huge liabilities for her country to keep the euro alive.

So far, these policies have not cost German taxpayers a single cent since all she has given are guarantees. But considering the various bilateral guarantees and Germany’s exposure through the European Stability Mechanism and the ECB’s Target 2 system, the risks to German taxpayers are now well in excess of one trillion euros.

Merkel’s energy policy is an equally costly disaster. Within hours after the disaster at Fukushima, Merkel reversed her previous support of nuclear power and ordered the switch off of Germany’s reactors. That her party faced a crucial regional election against a strong Green party candidate at the time probably played a role in this decision (Merkel lost that election regardless).

Since Germany is also trying to phase out fossil fuels, the country has been manically subsidising renewable energies. Unfortunately, none of these policies has been properly designed – and they are not compatible with the European Union’s emissions trading scheme anyway. This means subsidies only depress the price of emissions certificates without reducing emissions by a single gram of carbon dioxide.

Finally, Merkel’s spur of the moment decision to allow mass migration into Germany may have temporarily increased her international popularity. But it has also weakened the EU, created a strategic dependency on Turkey to stop uncontrolled migration and created another trillion euro long-term liability for integrating the mainly unskilled migrants.

With a record like this, it is hard to understand Merkel’s enduring success. Yet Merkel is likely to be re-elected in Germany’s September election. It says more about the state of the opposition than about her real achievements.

And so the never-ending story of Merkel continues. For the moment, she remains the unbeatable Scheinriese of Europe. Just don’t get too close to her.

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