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If Merkel Is Europe’s Queen, U.S. Congress May Be Its Court Jester

If Merkel Is Europe’s Queen, U.S. Congress May Be Its Court Jester
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Q: Has the recent re-election of Angela Merkel consolidated her power?

Günter Verheugen: Absolutely. She was the winner of the election as a person. She is really popular. Her position is extremely strong. I personally believe she is now stronger than Kohl was during his best time, and she will clearly be the one who makes the decisions in the next couple of months. Merkel will be the key figure for European politics in the years to come. But her party (Christian Democrats), on the other hand, that’s not so popular.

Q: Does her recent mandate translate into more sway for Germany within the European Union?

Verheugen: Of course, but it’s not only a matter of her personality. It’s simply a matter of the economic weight of Germany in the European Union. Germany is outperforming all the other members economically, so the position of Germany is extremely strong. While the government in Berlin is not really interested to accept a leadership role in the European Union, they have had to do that. They have no choice. They must, because everybody is looking to them.

That is not to say everybody likes this, but there is nothing they can do. There is no politician in Europe who really challenges Merkel’s influence. What they expect now is that Germany’s policy will be a little bit softer, less rigid. That will probably happen because the Christian Democrats (Merkel’s party) will form a coalition with the Social Democrats, who are very much in favor of a more balanced approach in economic affairs. That means incentives for the economy plus budgetary constraints. But the emphasis is on the incentives for growth and jobs. That means the German policy will change, but not totally.

Germany is prepared to act and also to carry burdens in order to keep the whole system together—that will continue. But Germany will ask for something in return—there will be the quid pro quo. We are prepared to help you, but then you need to undergo structural reforms or whatever it is. This quid pro quo will clearly remain, even with this less rigid approach.

We can expect the next government in Germany to launch a major initiative to make commitments of the member states more binding and to establish a sound competitiveness agenda. How to do that will be a top issue for the coalition negotiations, which are now seriously beginning.

Q: Was the question over stricter data privacy in Europe an important issue during the election? Was there much debate over the allegations of NSA spying?

Verheugen: Surprisingly, it wasn’t a big issue in Germany until it became known a couple of days ago that European leaders, including Chancellor Merkel—even her cell phone—were monitored by the NSA. Before this development, the German government maintained a low profile and was very careful not to be provocative with the Americans. This will change. We have now a fierce debate in Germany and other European countries that might very well have negative fallout for EU-U.S. relations and German-U.S. relations. Clearly, the Europeans will ask for guarantees that this will not happen again.

Merkel will be the key figure for European politics in the years to come. But her party (Christian Democrats), on the other hand, that’s not so popular.

Q: Is the attitude the same about data privacy?

Verheugen: No, it is an issue here, but just not a top issue. And as far as we can see now, it will not be a top priority for the next government.

Q: Merkel’s party didn’t win a majority. That’s left her with the prospect of forming yet another coalition government. What shape will that government take?

Verheugen: The situation is now much clearer than in the first weeks after the election. Merkel had preliminary talks with the Social Democrats and the Greens as well – the latter more for show, but cooperation between Merkel’s party and the Greens is now an option, if the preferred coalition with the SPD doesn’t materialize or comes apart after some time. The SPD-leaders, however, have a green light to form a coalition with Merkel, and it will be in place before Christmas. This government will have an overwhelming majority in the Bundestag—80 percent of the seats and also a majority in the chamber of the federal states. The new government will have the power to think and to act big – but it seems to me, that the ambitions are not very high, which is very much Merkel’s style. For the Social Democrats, there were only bad choices. To enter the government is presumably the least damaging option they have.

Q: In fact, didn’t Merkel move a bit towards center during this recent campaign, closer to the Social Democrats on some issues?

Verheugen: That has been true for the past couple of years. But this has nothing to do with ideology. She simply calculated: The Social Democrats have some popular issues, like the minimum wage, so I’ll take them away. The only critical voices you hear are within her own party, among the traditional members of her party, who say it’s no longer a conservative party. But this was a pragmatic decision on her part.

Q:  What were Europeans thinking during the government shutdown in the United States?

Verheugen:  [Laughs] I think we viewed it with a mixture of astonishment, not understanding, but there is also a feeling that our American friends should now stop lecturing us about governing. The majority believed that the President and the Congress would eventually find a temporary solution. But there is real concern in Europe about the political culture in the U.S. and the unhealthy confrontational policies of the Republicans. We need strong leadership in the U.S., and there are doubts whether we can count on it in the long and medium term. European policy makers were more concerned about the debt limit issue—because a (U.S. default) would send shock waves throughout the global markets. People who understand the situation expect that there will be serious repercussions for the economic recovery in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. So yes, it is a serious, serious problem for us.

Q: Did European governments set up contingency plans?

Verheugen: No, because no one believes that a U.S. default would be allowed to happen, regardless of what is being said. An we hope in Europe, that President Obama was right when he said, this situation will not happen again.

Homepage photo: Getty Images

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About the author

Günter Verheugen has served as a member of the European Commission for more than a decade, most recently as European commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, making him one of only five vice presidents of the 27-member Barroso Commission. He began his political career in Germany’s Free Democratic Party, later switching to the Social Democratic Party and ultimately becoming minister of state in the German Foreign Ministry. And from 1999 to 2004, Verheugen, a member of FleishmanHillard's International Advisory Board, managed the EU’s largest and most complex enlargement process.