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  Opinion   Columnists  05 Dec 2016  Merkel: Europe’s face of liberalism

Merkel: Europe’s face of liberalism

S Nihal Singh has four editorships under his belt, with globetrotting stints in Singapore, Pakistan, Moscow, London, New York, Paris and Dubai.
Published : Dec 5, 2016, 12:57 am IST
Updated : Dec 5, 2016, 7:03 am IST

Angela Merkel has relied on common sense, rather than charisma, to build her enviable reputation as a safe pair of hands.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel address the media during a joint news conference with the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, as part of a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: AP)
 German Chancellor Angela Merkel address the media during a joint news conference with the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, as part of a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: AP)

By a curious twist of fate, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has thrown her hat into the ring for a fourth term, has emerged as the face of liberalism and sanity in a world peopled by President-elect Donald Trump in the US and ascendant far right parties on the European continent.

Ms Merkel’s congratulatory message to Mr Trump emphasising the common thread of liberal values was duly appreciated by many in Europe, including her countrymen, for being explicit for the benefit of an unpredictable future US administration. And with Britain sitting in the departure lounge of the European Union and France’s Francois Hollande wisely announcing he won’t run for the presidency again with his abysmally low popularity rating, Ms Merkel remains the only major leader left standing.


After enjoying enviable popularity as her country’s undisputed leader for her sane head and no-nonsense approach, Ms Merkel has had her own basket of problems with her open door policy towards Syrian and other refugees. Germany took in more than a million refugees last year in sharp contrast to a refugee-shy Europe. Inevitably, the initial welcome turned to grumbling, given the sheer numbers involved. It was oxygen to parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Ms Merkel has gone some way to ensuring that she reaches out to people over the change in the very fabric of German society. A faster process of sending back undesirables has been set in motion. But the larger context she has been functioning in, in a crisis-ridden continent, has catapulted her to a position of pre-eminence to save the cherished concept of European unity.


Typically, Ms Merkel has relied on common sense, rather than charisma, to build her enviable reputation as a safe pair of hands. This is a typical German virtue appreciated by her countrymen and women after the trauma of the Nazi period. But she is being called upon now to take on a continentwide role to save European unity and the liberal values it enshrines.

Inevitably, the crisis point has been reached following the earlier recession and the new straightened circumstances of Europeans who have seen levels of unparallel prosperity. These tendencies have gone hand in hand with the rise of populism and the far right and a form of ultra-nationalism espoused by countries such as Hungary and Poland. In refusing to take in Muslim refugees, they declare they do not wish to alter the fabric of their Christian ethos.


The European Union concept was buttressed by the military underpinning of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). In his campaign rhetoric, Mr Trump has belittled the role of the military organisation to shock Europeans. This is particularly true of countries like Poland and the Baltic states that consider themselves vulnerable to Russian pressure.

Europe’s need for a reassuring figure such as Ms Merkel is therefore all the greater. The process of Brexit is likely to be painful not only for the UK but also for the EU because altering the single market’s freedom to live and work in any member country would be strongly opposed. Yet the emotive issue of continentals’ movement towards Britain for work was a central point in swinging the referendum vote to leaving the EU. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May still gives the impression of making up her plans as she goes along.


Obviously, the great tragedies of World War II that gave rise to idealists to bring about European unity in a shattered continent, the crowning achievement being Franco-German reconciliation, is no longer felt. New generations have taken for granted the freedom to travel and live and work in any member country. On the other hand, they are being egged on by nationalists and populists towards narrower causes.

Ms Merkel’s giant size task is therefore cut out for her. First, she must win her re-election and make gestures to her domestic constituents. Apart from taking a stricter criterion to weed out undesirables from the refugee flow, she has announced plans to bring East German pensions to West German levels by 2025. Ms Merkel herself lived in East Germany and graduated from there, and has a sentimental thread to those living in the former East Germany.


The crisis in Europe is accentuated by the dramatic impending change in the US administration. The American pole is the ultimate guarantee of the continent’s safety and security, however much people cavilled at Washington’s ways. Given Mr Trump’s campaign talk, that pole is less than secure, in effect bringing about a psychological trauma.

The Trump administration, once it takes office, will inevitably temper its campaign rhetoric, but the basic beliefs of the President-elect, underlined by the key appointments made thus far, portend a more selfish policy with the accent on “Make America Great Again”, emphasising American prosperity and jobs. The scene is set for a more transactional relationship.


If Mr Trump makes good on his sentiments and beliefs, will Ms Merkel be left alone fighting for the liberal cause? Ideals and the very idea of a united Europe minus Russia are under siege. The US Marshall Plan that pulled Europe out of its misery and destruction was based on the American national interest. But the element of altruism and daring in undertaking the venture cannot be overlooked.

It is a very different picture today. The one silver lining is that Mr Trump is looking at relations with Russia with fresh eyes and is impressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership qualities. The problem, however, is larger than the President-elect comprehends.


The Ukraine crisis is a telling example. Mr Putin is contesting the basis of the West appropriating vital Russian interests, leaving Communism aside, by seeking to join to the West a bordering country nearly 50 million strong that is the mother of Slavic orthodox religion. It happened in the Boris Yeltsin era after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Through compulsion and temperament, Yeltsin was putty in American hands. Mr Putin is seeking to reverse that.

Tags: angela merkel, donald trump, world war ii