quinta-feira, 29 de outubro de 2015

If Angela Merkel is ousted, Europe will unravel

It is more accurate to call it panic than plotting. This week I spent time in the company of members of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party. Startlingly for an outsider, the conversations turned on whether the German chancellor would survive the refugee crisis. Some thought she had just weeks to turn things around. Never mind that only yesterday she had towered above any other European leader. Overnight, the unthinkable has become the plausible — for some in her party, the probable.

Other voices say the fever will subside, but Ms Merkel’s vulnerability speaks to the convulsions across Europe caused by the tide of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Maghreb and Sahel countries of Africa. In the eastern, post-communist part of the continent, the influx has strengthened the hands of the ethnic nationalists who never quite signed up to the idea of liberal democracy. To the west it has bolstered the fortunes of nativists such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. Rallies of the far-right Pegida party in Germany now feature speakers who lament the loss of concentration camps. If Britain’s David Cameron loses his referendum to keep Britain in the EU it will be because emotions over migration trump economic self-interest.

Ms Merkel has rarely been called a conviction politician. Her longevity in office has resided in her skill in finding the natural point of balance in the German national mood; and, it should be said, her ruthlessness in despatching potential rivals. The adjectives most often applied to her leadership style, sometimes with more than a note of frustration, have been cautious, deliberative and consensual.

“Mutti” (mum) Merkel, as she is often called, has succeeded by assuring her compatriots that she will shelter Germany from the fires raging beyond its borders. They need not worry about the detail of policy. Germans can be sure she will be firm but calm in standing up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and, though committed to the future of the euro, will be a careful guardian of the nation’s finances. For a decade, Germans have taken her on trust.

She has displayed the same skills in Europe. Those who have watched her operate at summits of EU leaders have marvelled at her informal consensus-building. A conversation over the shoulder with this prime minister, a deal sealed over a snatched cup of coffee with that president, a friendly pat on the shoulder for officials seeking common ground. Ms Merkel has always pressed the German interest, but in a manner of compromise over confrontation.

The refugee crisis has seen a different Ms Merkel: a leader ready to speak to, and act on, her convictions, to step outside the padded cell of focus groups and opinion polls. Her decision to welcome the hundreds of thousands making their way through the Balkans made more sense than her opponents allow. Could Germany really have built fences and posted soldiers to guard them? Could it have chartered trains to send them back to a Middle East in flames? But there was heart as well as head in her response.

Fair enough, say my CDU friends. And, yes, her welcome for the refugees initially caught the national mood. But the sheer numbers — Germany expects 1m-plus arrivals this year — have changed the calculus. Towns and villages have been overwhelmed by the influx. And, this the potentially fatal wound for the chancellor, a sense has grown that she has lost that all-important control.

Politicians never stop looking at their poll ratings and the CDU’s have fallen sharply. There is no obvious candidate to replace her, but step up Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister, as a likely stopgap until a candidate is chosen to fight the 2017 election. Mr Schäuble has been curiously quiet of late.

Behind selfish calculation lies a deeper fear. Centre parties across Europe have surrendered ground to populists of left and right because their electorates have feared they no longer offer security. Germany, the nastiness of the small Pegida notwithstanding, had seen the centre hold. But now, on an issue widely seen as one of cultural identity, has Ms Merkel lost control?

The answer I think is no, but when politicians fall to panic anything is possible. I watched at close quarters the defenestration by her own party of Margaret Thatcher, another powerful leader who seemed invincible until the moment of her fall. She, too, had won three election victories. Though deeply unpopular by 1990, until it happened it seemed unthinkable that her colleagues could turn on her with such ferocity.

The stakes, though, are much higher with Ms Merkel. The financial crash, the euro crisis and the collapse of the Schengen open borders arrangement has seen Europe unravelling as centrist parties across the continent have struggled to meet the challenge of the populists. Ms Merkel has been the rock of certainty — the leader with the authority to keep the show on the road. Without her the fractures would multiply.

Mr Schäuble, too, is a pro-European, in some respects a more committed integrationist. But Ms Merkel has been the guardian of a post-1989 settlement that has rooted Germany in its Europeanness. Her removal would see it shift into the camp of those consumed by narrower, more immediate calculations of interest, giving up on the ideal of a European Germany. And that would be the beginning of the end.

Philip Stephens

Fonte: FT