Merkeln (German verb): To dither, do nothing or fail to take decisions
I have always thought the German stereotype for humourlessness is slightly unfair. Exhibit A for my contrary view is that a new verb, Merkeln, has recently entered the German language. Any culture that can coin a word to describe the haplessness of its present Chancellor exhibits a certain redeeming gallows humour.
For at last the German people are on to Angela Merkel’s breath-taking ineptitude. After years of desperately believing in mutti (the creepy, beyond Freudian nickname Germans have for her), that she would keep the world’s dangers away from them, the tide of considered opinion is turning. Merkel’s stolid immobility in the face of the chaos that has engulfed Europe is not a sign of her abilities. Rather it reflects her utter inability to solve any of the raft of problems that has beset the continent. Merkel has not mastered history; history has mastered her.
An early September 2016 poll showed this sea change in Merkel’s utterly undeserved reputation. When Germans were asked who they would prefer as Chancellor following the 2017 parliamentary elections, it found Merkel only three points clear of her likely SPD challenger, Sigmar Gabriel. Strikingly, another recent poll finds that 48 per cent of Germans do not want Merkel to run for Chancellor for a fourth term. Rather than keeping them safe, Germans increasingly worry that Merkel’s supposedly masterly inactivity has instead merely allowed a series of policy problems to go septic.
Last weekend’s Bratislava EU summit – designed for Europe to begin to plot its post-Brexit course – was vintage Merkel. She began it with her usual blindingly obvious truism (even her fans concede the Chancellor is not much of an orator), saying that Europe had reached a critical stage, hardly news to anyone inhabiting our planet.
German officials immediately played down hopes that there would be any practical results emanating from the summit (diplomatic speak for nothing is going to happen). Worse still, and confirming my worst fears, Brussels officials stated that they saw little chance of repairing the bloc with both France and Germany having elections next year (diplomatic speak for nothing is going to happen for a very long while).
Let’s stop and think about this for a minute. In 1943, at the height of World War II, can you imagine US officials saying to the press after one of the momentous US-UK conferences to chart the course of the war, that very little was likely to happen because FDR had to run for re-election in 1944? We have all gotten far too used to these pathetic excuses. Either the EU, led by Merkel’s Germany, will get its act together – and very soon – or analysts must see it for what it actually is, a former great power in absolute decline.
Long before the 2017 parliamentary elections, the die will be cast. Later this month the EU will report back on whether Erdogan’s Turkey has met the criteria to be awarded visa-free travel for its citizens. This was the centrepiece of the EU-Turkish deal engineered by Merkel to halt the unexpected flow of 1.1m refugees who descended on Germany from the fires of Syria last year. If the EU doesn’t honour the bargain with Turkey, it is highly unlikely President Erdogan will keep his end of the deal either, serving as Europe’s refugee night-watchman. In other words, the refugee crisis has not been “solved”, merely postponed.
In fact, bad blood between eastern and western Europe regarding the refugee crisis (along with north-south divisions over the euro crisis) just keeps getting worse. Viktor Orban, the populist leader of Hungary, has called a referendum over Merkel’s overly-generous (in his view) refugee policy for early October; the public is likely to overwhelmingly back his stance. So far Berlin and Brussels have tried to browbeat an increasingly sullen eastern Europe into towing the line, to no avail.
The same holds true for the euro crisis. As I wrote in this column last week, the Italian banking crisis has morphed into a massive political crisis, with Rome being three plausible moves away from leaving the single currency. Unlike Greece, Italy is too big to fail. Its rejection of the euro would signal an end to the currency as we know it once and for all. So the euro crisis has not been mastered, either. And the wound has gone septic, as north-south counter-narratives as to who is at fault have hardened and deepened.
In looking at Merkel, the chattering classes (so wrong about so many things lately) have confused electoral success with actually accomplishing anything. It is not holding office – attaining power – that matters. It is what is done with it. In Merkel’s case, as her verb makes clear, the answer is… absolutely nothing.