The stain on Merkel’s legacy
The German chancellor enabled authoritarians in the EU. Will whoever succeeds her prove different?
Daniel Hegedüs is transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
BERLIN — Angela Merkel’s 16-year German chancellorship oversaw all three main European Union crises of the 21st century: the 2008 financial and sovereign debt crisis, the 2015 migrant crisis and the ongoing rule of law and democracy crisis.
And while she performed admirably with first and successfully survived the second, it’s the last one that will define her legacy. Merkel is not simply leaving the EU’s rule of law problem — the most transformative challenge for European integration in the long term — unsolved for her successor. It is primarily under her watch that the authoritarian ambitions of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s strongman Jarosław Kaczyński were able to grow to pose a systemic challenge for the EU.
Merkel has been constantly criticized for being soft on Orbán and prioritizing the interests of the German automotive and manufacturing industries over the democratic integrity of the EU. She has also been accused of not speaking out against the country’s authoritarian dynamics in order to keep the black sheep of the European People’s Party (EPP), Orbán’s Fidesz party, within the conservative political family.
Could Merkel have acted differently, drawing hard red lines for Hungary and Poland? No question.
But can Europe expect a radically different, critical approach toward the EU’s wannabe autocrats from whoever succeeds her in Berlin? Not necessarily.
Merkel’s strategic choices were not hers alone; they are deeply rooted in the fundamental traditions of German politics and diplomacy. As such, they are shared by not only the Christian Democrats (CDU) but also the German Social Democrats (SPD), the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and, even if to a lesser extent, the Greens as well.
What shaped the German approach toward Hungary and Poland goes beyond the fact that these countries are organic parts or the German-Central European manufacturing core and that they thus dispose of extensive and ever-growing German foreign direct investment (FDI) stocks.
It also goes further than the truth that German politics is shaped by the country’s historic responsibility vis-á-vis Central and Eastern European countries and that Fidesz used to be an important member of the EPP.
Below the surface are two strategic drivers that have shaped Berlin’s approach to the growing autocratization in its Central European neighborhood.
First, is the German elites’ traditional inability to define the country’s national interest in anything other than economic terms since the reunification. In this mindset, geo-economic considerations trump everything else, a trend that has also been well reflected in Germany’s approach to Russia and China.
Second, German political and foreign policy culture is extremely consent and dialogue oriented. Speaking with, and not about, the Central European autocrats has been a mantra of German diplomacy for a decade now.
However, this foreign policy tradition is practically powerless against counterparts who fake dialogue, like the Hungarian government, or are not ready to move even one step further than simply maintaining channels of communication, like Poland.
In a nutshell, in Berlin’s understanding, democracy and rule of law are simply values that are unrelated to their interests. They are nice to have but are not essential to make profit. They deserve lip service but lag behind in importance to market access and maintaining dialogue.
The SPD, Greens and FDP may be more committed to these two values than their conservative counterparts, but they do not represent a different school of thought when it comes to interest formulation and strategy. They share the same traditions and structural constraints that shaped German policy under Merkel.
This stain on the chancellor’s legacy is the joint legacy of the German political class. It is also the legacy of the SPD, which has been governing with Merkel for 12 of her 16 years in office and has been in control of the foreign office during that time.
Not ready or able to credibly threaten sanctions, German diplomacy is stuck in an empty dialogue trap. Merkel’s successor has an opportunity to leave the path she has paved and demonstrate that Germany’s approach toward autocratization in the EU can be different.
There are good reasons to doubt that will happen. But if the next chancellor doesn’t change Germany’s approach, the stain on Merkel’s legacy will become their own.
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