Don’t Blame All Germans for the Euro Crisis. Just Blame Merkel.

by James Angelos | October 17, 2011

Berlin, Germany—Germany is at the center of the European financial crisis that is threatening to sink Europe, and much of the rest of the world, into a double-dip recession, but you would hardly know it in Berlin. But for the relatively small protests this past weekend in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, there have been few signs here of the discontented masses who have recently assumed control of city squares in Madrid, or threatened to storm the parliament in Athens.

But if Germans are rather stoic in the face of the euro’s roiling crisis, that’s not to say they are confident their government has a grasp on it. Rather, among those who are not simply disinterested, the prevailing sentiment is one of confusion and dissatisfaction with the policies their government has so far proposed, not simply because those policies involve handing over German money, but because the measures taken so far offer no enduring solution. International commentators are mistaken when they suggest an obstinate German public is standing in the way of political resolutions to the crisis. Instead, as the lack of protest and anger over the bailouts indicates, the German electorate is more uncertain than adamant, and perhaps most of all, looking for their political leaders to chart a clear way forward.

“I’m very, very skeptical,” Dieter Weber, a 72-year-old retired translator, told me on a street in the leafy Berlin district of Zehlendorf, a conservative bastion, when I asked him and three members of his family about Germany’s bailout of countries like Greece. While Greece could not necessarily be abandoned, he said, the German government seemed to be throwing money at an intractable problem. “The solution is not to continue to inflate the umbrella and keep giving more and more money,” he said with a hint of stridence in his voice, reflecting a widespread attitude in Germany at the moment.

Yet the euro crisis is only one issue among many political concerns for Weber. In the regional election in Berlin last month, he voted for Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, but the European debt crisis did not play a big factor in his decision. It was not the main theme,” said Mr. Weber. “National themes are in the foreground.” He and his family then listed some of those issues they found more pressing: health insurance, the fate of nuclear energy in Germany, employment.

This was hardly the emphatically anti-bailout German that one has been taught to expect. Many Germans approach the European debt crisis less with an attitude of fervor than puzzlement, and, often, a degree of apathy. It is true that if you ask Germans whether they support giving more money to Greece or other indebted nations, chances are they'll say no. But ask if this makes for a pivotal election issue, and many will respond simply with a shrug.

German opinion might prove somewhat ambivalent because the economics of the debt crisis are difficult to understand. In one poll, three-quarters of Germans said they did not support the expansion of the bail out fund recently passed in the German parliament. Yet many Germans don’t necessarily want to accept the consequences of not paying. In another poll taken around the same time, when Germans were asked if Europe should continue to support Greece or let it go bankrupt, slightly more than half said Greece should continue to receive support.

Those German parties that have tried to cash-in on bailout fatigue have not reaped much reward for their efforts. In the recent Berlin election, the pro-business Free Democrats, part of Ms. Merkel's ailing national parliamentary coalition, campaigned against “unlimited assumption of debt”. Yet the Free Democrats won only 1.8 percent of the vote in Berlin. (To put that result in perspective, even the extreme-right National Democratic Party, referred to as the neo-Nazi party, fared slightly better with 2.1 percent of the vote.)

Meanwhile, the center-left Social Democrats and Greens have experienced gains in several regional votes despite the fact that both parties claim a greater willingness to adopt sweeping—and potentially expensive—measures to curb the debt crisis. Sigmar Gabriel, the chairman of the Social Democrats, has argued in support of euro bonds—bonds backed by the entire euro zone rather than any one nation—the kind of move that might offer a more sustainable solution to the crisis, but that also may lead to higher bowering costs for Germany. The Social Democrats have also called for programs to spur growth in Greece, rather than just choking Greece with austerity.

Appearing on a Sunday talk show recently, Chancellor Merkel defended the Greek bailout, characterizing the measure as necessary to ensure the stability of the euro as well as “buying time” for Greece to recover. At the same time, she has often railed against the notion of a “debt union.” It would not be the first time that Merkel, who is often characterized as more pragmatic than visionary in her leadership style, has sought the political middle ground, but in this case, her cautious approach has hindered prospects for a broad and durable solution, one the German public could be convinced to support.

“What people want concerning this crisis would be the chancellor to stand up and give a great speech—Churchill style—to explain what's going on and what we need to do,” says Carsten Koschmieder, a lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin. “Merkel is not doing this, and this is why people aren’t satisfied with the way the government is handling the crisis.” As Koschmieder points out, one poll recently showed that only 27 percent of Germans think the government is making the right decisions regarding the crisis.

Merkel’s inability to offer more decisive leadership may have a great deal to do with the restiveness within her own conservative coalition. So far, that coalition is holding together, but its appetite for more aggressive measures is questionable. Yet, if Merkel's coalition were to collapse—and the current unpopularity of her partners the Free Democrats’ indicates that it will—it could well be replaced by a center-left regime willing to support stronger action to solve the debt crisis.

For now, the German parliament voted overwhelmingly to dig deeper into the nation's pocket and fork over an additional 88 billion euros, adding to the 123 billion it has already contributed toward to the bailout fund, known as the European Financial Stability Facility. Despite polls that showed most Germans opposed that move, no large protests—like those seen recently in opposition to nuclear power or local infrastructure projects—followed.

Even those Germans most inclined to be skeptical about Europe have not been much exercised by the latest bailout vote, indicating Merkel has more political wiggle room than often supposed. Earlier this month in Berlin, I saw a group of visitors from Bavaria reveling around town, seeing the sites in traditional lederhosen and green dirndls. Bavarians are known for their conservatism as well as an independent streak that, as the cliché goes, makes them hesitant to involve themselves with the rest of Germany, much less nations like Greece.

As this particular group of Bavarians waited at a train station for a ride toward the domed Reichstag building, where the German national parliament is housed, I asked one of them, a gray-haired man with a yellow flower in his wide-brimmed hat, if the parliament should have voted to expand the bail out fund a few days earlier. “Actually, no,” he replied. However, he confessed, he had not given the subject all that much thought, nor had it ever been a subject of discussion between him and his co-revelers. He told me “infrastructure” was a more important political issue for him. As for the debt crisis, “It's important,” he said before boarding his train for the Reichstag, “but not so important.”

James Angelos is a freelance writer in Berlin, Germany.

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