Four more years “in search of lost time” for Europe? “Madame Alternativlos” and her eurozone austerity disaster

Angela Merkel was sworn into office as German Chancellor for the first time on precisely this date, November 22nd, in 2005, eleven years ago. On Sunday (November 20th) she announced her candidacy at the next parliamentary elections in Germany, well ahead of her initial intention to wait until January. The election is due to take place in approximately ten months from now, most likely in late September or early October, 2017. The current “political climate“ in Germany seems to be that there is no alternative to her continuing on after the next election. Yet, there is.

Chancellor Merkel (July 2010), here pictured with hands folded in a diamond shape, a
gesture which  has widely been interpreted as her signature hand gesture, or
the signature hand gesture of her "there is no alternative" attitude
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Just three days prior to that, at Thursday's (November 17
th) press conference with US president, Barack Obama, in Berlin, at the occasion of Obama's last state visit to Germany, she had evaded clear answers to questions about her own future beyond 2017 and had urged everyone to wait until the beginning of the election year itself. A couple of minutes later, she also stated „Demokratie lebt vom Wechsel - democracy is kept alive by change“. This was, of course, in reference to the current transition from the incumbent president Obama to president-elect Trump in the U.S., but it could also have been a hint at her own future. Yet, in hindsight, and in line with the decision she announced just a few days later, it turned out not to be, or in other words, to merely be a diplomatic phrase. The current “political climate“ in Germany seems to be that there is no alternative to Merkel (aged 62) continuing on after the next election, thus extending her tenure to over twelve years, and to fifteen years if she would stay on for the entire next four-year term. Thus she would, in late 2019, be overtaking the famous first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (fourteen years, 1949-1963) and, at the end of the said term, in 2021, be just short of the sixteen years her mentor in the 1990s, Helmut Kohl, was in office (
1982-1998; both Adenauer and Kohl also representing her own party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU)).

Yet, within the last couple of months, meetings have taken place of some members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens (bourgeois centre-left), and the democratic socialist Left Party (Die Linke), in order to (tentatively) make preparations for a possible alternative centre-left coalition to replace Merkel's Grand Coalition (formed by her own Conservative fraction (made up of the CDU and the - more conservative - Bavarian sister party CSU) and the SPD) a year from now. For this to be possible, the SPD would have to modify its current profile the most, by moving left again, away from current centrist or even centre-right positions on most issues, that the party took to be able to govern together with Merkel; but this seems in the realm of the possible in light of the (by German standards) still rather early pre-election stages we're currently in (usually the main campaigning doesn't really kick off before the end of the winter, so about five months ahead of the election date).

Latest polls (if we can still “trust“ any of them after the failures of the pollsters in the UK and the US this year) suggest that a “Red-Red-Green“ coalition is just short of the 50% mark and thus a majority in parliament; but it could gain more dynamics if, from the coming spring at the latest, it presents itself as a viable left-wing alternative to Merkel's current centre to centre-right policies - as, with the exception of the refugee policy (at least prior to the cynical Turkey "refugee deal"), the Grand Coalition is centre-right to hard right on most other issues. This is true especially with regard to fiscal policy, where the mantra of “fiscal responsibility“ or “fiscal conservatism“ has led to austerity, both domestically (German: „schwarze Null“ ("black zero"), i.e. a balanced budget, a no-debt policy, and no Keynesianism, despite Germany's current interest rate for borrowing being negative (!!)) as well as, much more drastically, outside Germany, in the “Euro crisis“ countries. Greece, which was driven into abject poverty, but similarly Portugal and Ireland, and to some extent Italy, were most affected by German-initiated austerity “measures” to “solve” the “Euro crisis” - i.e. socialize the debt by cutting public goods and services, and privatize the profits of banks and corporations (by “bailing them out”).

At the same time, the German government is increasing the military budget, allowing arms exports to autocratic states in the Middle East and elsewhere (most prominently Saudi-Arabia and Oman) and ratifying the notorious transatlantic "free" trade agreements with Canada (CETA) and the US (TTIP), which are opposed by many in the European populace (Berlin saw a demonstration of more than 200 000 against TTIP already in October of 2015). With a centre-left government, a change of direction in this crucial field (national and European economic, fiscal, infrastructure and social policies) can at least be hoped for – a bit “against hope”, of course, as there would be strong resistance to any Keynesianism or any kind of real European "Marshall Plan" by the European and global financial institutions, such as the IMF and some other EU institutions (such as the ECB or the infamously political (neoliberal) European Court of Justice), but still a spark of hope.

Anti-austerity protest in Athens, Greece, on June 21st, 2015,
"ΟΧΙ" στην ΕΞΌΝΤΩΣΗ ("no to annihilation")

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In light of Brexit, the upcoming presidency of the (at least economically (remains to be seen?)) nationalist Donald Trump, the likelihood of a much more illiberal or conservative-nationalist government in France early next year, and generally an increasingly more illiberal political and societal climate in Europe and globally, Merkel has been dubbed as the “new” or “last remaining” leader of the “free world”.

But the notions of the president of the United States (or any other world leader, for that matter) as the “leader of the free world” or the “free world” as a term itself, if they ever had some significance, are both relics from the Cold War. Who is part of the “free” and who of the “unfree” world, when, even in the allegedly “free” world basic freedoms, especially civil rights, such as privacy, freedom of movement, freedom of the media, or freedom of speech, are curbed under the pretext of the “war on terror”, the big bogeyman of our day and age? The results of this US-led war, by the way, are as disastrous as the Euro policy by the troika. Both, of course, haven't made the world safer and more liberal, but on the contrary, more unstable and more illiberal, and have caused the hegemony of a politically poisonous climate gripped by a general fear and insecurity. Thus, Merkel is far from being a progressive figure and representative of a “freer” world, but on the contrary, she has played a largely negative part in these developments, i.e. the increase in inequality, poverty and illiberalism across Europe.

In a piece on Merkel's future, published yesterday on the online platform of German weekly Die ZEIT, Austrian journalist and blogger Robert Misik sees her, the leader of Germany (and thus inadvertently, one of the prime movers in Europe), being dubbed “the leader (or saviour) of the entire free world”, as “paradox[ical] (…), because she's not innocent, but on the contrary, one of the main culprits in creating the current situation where we have to defend pluralistic democracy. Because the austerity policies in Europe, executed by Germany, Germany's policy to cut the incomes of the normal people, this voodoo idea, which springs from the neoliberal mantra of 'competitiveness' – this absurd idea, that shrinking peoples' incomes and thus whole national economies is necessary to make it successful again – is one of the main causes of the malaise we are currently in.

Anti-austerity protest in Dublin, Ireland, October 12th, 2013
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

In Europe Germany's austerity dicate and the German
'beggar thy neighbour' policy has caused stagnation and depression for the past eight years. But this also has repercussions for the entire world as the world's most powerful economic area has contributed nothing to the recovery of the world economy, but has failed as the reflator of the global market. (…) Along with her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, this Breshnev of neoliberalism, it was her, like no one else, that was the incarnation of these policies.”

Many seem to be either still unaware of this, deliberately overlook or even praise this role Merkel's government played, for ideological (i.e. pro-neoliberal) reasons – like many members of the German media, who uncritically believe(d) in, or fell for, these “tina” (“
there is no alternative”) policies of Madame Alternativlos - most of them apparently still do, by the way. But, as Robert Misik – who has followed the fate of Greece and its “dealings” with the “troika” as closely as hardly anybody else in the German-speaking countries over the past years - points out in the Zeit article, “austerity doesn't work. It was tried for eight years, with disastrous consequences. Schäuble's voodoo economy has had its rendez-vous with reality. To the detriment of all of us.”  [the translation from the original German of Misik's article is our own, PB].

Angela Merkel, who in the earlier stages of her tenure had earned the nickname “Madame Non”, mainly for refusing to move towards an “ever closer union” in terms of a common fiscal policy, became “Madame Alternativlos” in the later stages, after what was, in an Orwellian manner, dubbed the “German bailout of Greece” by the German media, in reality amounting to the bailout of the banks involved, to the detriment of the Greek state budget, welfare state, health and transport infrastructure, etc. On May 5
th, 2010 she stated: “Those measures are without alternative”. Another famous line with a similar core message was: “If the Euro fails, Europe fails”. (May 19th, 2010). This was more than six years ago. But Europe is about to fail anyway, even though (and in part because) the currency union still exists.

                                      Anti-austerity protest in Porto, Portugal, September 15th, 2012,
                                   "Que Se Lixe a Troika" (Fuck the Troika!),  
                                                               Source: Wikimedia Commons

The crisis has not been solved, but only worsened ever since – and, in our opinion, this is less due to the refugee “crisis” of 2015/16 but much more due to the previous and ongoing slaughtering of the welfare states and other social institutions that had, for decades, guaranteed the social cohesion both in the EU and within its member states. The currency union itself has also worsened things for its economically weaker members, who lost the mechanism to devalue their currencies in order to absorb imbalances – this has increased Germany's economic hegemony instead of creating an (utopian from the beginning) "level playing field", and it has widened the gap in living standards as well as in "competitiveness" between the stronger (“core”) and the weaker (“periphery”) states. So simply put, and in the mindset of the average short attention span domestic politicians and media: for the German economy, the Euro “works” . But this notion, of course, disregards that the Eurozone as a whole was significantly weakened and social cohesion was lost due to its (predictable) crisis (which was worsened by austerity). So Merkel's principle is wrong, and it should be “Europe fails, because the idea of the Eurozone failed”.

It is high time for Chancellor Merkel to concede that the decision for European (and to a lesser extent, domestically, German) austerity in order to “save the euro” was “a catastrophically wrong one” (Misik); if she fails to do so, she has forfeited to have any say over the future of Europe, for four more years or less. In this case, we shall see if those who, in Germany and Europe, can actually build a true and viable alternative will have the prudence, prowess, resilience and stamina to do so. There is an alternative.

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