FOREIGN POLICY BY KAREL VAN WOLFEREN • MARCH 7, 2015
The European Union is not a state or a federation of states, it is something not seen before, but is assumed to grow state-like characteristics like a center of political accountability. It does not have a head of state or head of government. But political entities of any kind will at some point, when under pressure, cry out for leadership. Europe’s crises are demanding this, and have thrown up an autocrat.
Angela Merkel is an accidental autocrat. She was not chosen to be leader of Europe through any democratic method. She was not appointed or anointed. She could hardly be a more unlikely leader of the continent, having received her political education in the sheltered system of the DDR, far removed from plans and beginnings of Europe’s unification. She does not give the impression of having wanted the position, and if she relishes it she does not let on. She has demonstrated great political savvy, with tactical skills first honed when she was leader of a youth devision of East Germany’s “Propaganda und Agitation”. Her acumen has lifted her to an apparently invulnerable position above Germany’s political parties. The big question for all of us interested in the world’s future is whether she is becoming the inspired politician for whom many Europeans have been waiting. Can she rise to the occasion?
Early signs do not prompt a jubilant ‘yes!’. Yes, she did make a late move, eleven months into the Ukraine crisis, to try stop American ‘lethal’ weapon deliveries (with the inevitable ‘advisers’ and in the end well-nigh inevitable tactical nukes) to the Kiev regime. And, yes, she let the Greek Minister of Finance have a tiny slice of a compromise to allow him a Herculean attempt to save his country from total economic ruin. Both moves, though, were the absolute minimum of what the crises required.
The Ukraine and Greek crises have become existential crises for the European Union, caused by what is most wrong with that political entity. There are two great hindrances that keep the Union from fulfilling its unrealized promise. The promise was much commented upon only two decades ago, when Europe presented itself as a paragon of international virtues worthy of emulation. The hindrances – it cannot be restated often enough – are the secular faith of Atlanticism and the neoliberal capture of the Union’s political structure and processes. The two are, almost needless to say, intertwined.
The phrase ‘democratic deficit’ used by officials and commentators until a few years ago showed an awareness among Europe’s political elites that the way things are done in the European Union were not quite in keeping with professed principles held up for the world’s admiration. But this criticism revolved around the lack of enthusiasm for, participation in, or even the slightest curiosity about Europe’s political life rather than that they revealed an understanding of the momentous political metamorphosis that was changing things from under the feet of citizens of Europe’s member states without them noticing.
That change is neatly summed up by the imagery of the transformation of citizens, as far as ruling elites are concerned, into consumers – a transformation more vividly imagined by American critics of late capitalism than their counterparts in Europe, for whom the process was faster and came with less warning.
No electorate in the European Union voted for a replacement of unions, political parties, churches and other once representative institutions between themselves and their governments by a pack of ever more powerful corporate bodies dictating terms to the Union’s ruling elite. They did not vote for austerity policies masquerading as responsible finance. They did not bring a Brussels lobby of insurers to power, which demanded fundamental overhauls of good working national healthcare systems, limiting physicians in what they could and should perscribe and advise. They did not vote for an elevation of North European banks to become dominant arbiters of policy, and when these were facing technical bankruptcy through their gambling, they did not endorse the compensation of bank losses incurred through predatory lending by means of, again, predatory policies causing large-scale social suffering and ruin in the peripheral member states, Greece foremost among them.
Traditional safeguards against the arrogation of power by non-representative but politically significant entities to a point where they eliminate the relevance of citizens do not now function in Europe. Angela Merkel demonstrated her political loyalties when, after the credit crisis of 2008, she pointed her fingers at the Greeks and other peripheral populations who reportedly evaded their taxes and did not work hard enough, effectively changing the subject from the question of who instigated the crisis. After that, and up until today, she could hardly inform her electorate that German tax money and IMF financial ‘aid’ was bouncing straight back from Athens to replenish the coffers of Germany’s own banks, along with those of France and The Netherlands.
Since that time I have wondered whether Chancellor Merkel could perceive what was going on, and whether her tack to blame the Greeks was a momentary expedient, the repercussions of which were beyond her abilities to fathom. With respect to the other big hindrance to European fulfillment, does Chancellor Merkel begin to fathom just how momentous the changes in Washington at the hands of neocon radicals and ‘liberal hawks’ have been? She has appeared, at least until recently, to share with her counterparts in Northern Europe a blindness to how Europe’s erstwhile geopolitical protector, which for all its CIA machinations did help maintain a relatively stable post-World War II international system, has become a tragic case of political malfunctioning and deadly hubris. Does she perceive that the ‘Alliance’ part of Atlanticism has become theory without substance?
There is no alliance in the generally accepted interpretation of the word. Alliances exist for purposes of shared goals. After the demise of the common enemy, the transatlantic alliance collapsed because of a slide into militarism, and fundamentally altered priorities of its dominant member. Command replaced consultation. Times are long gone when any kind of public conversation between Europeans and Americans about harmful American action has a chance to resonate in American corridors of power. Through continued support for NATO Europe’s member states help encourage Washington’s delusions of unattainable total global control, which will not benefit them in any way, but of which they are likely to become dupes.
A major article in Der Spiegel, Germany’s weekly with a reputation for seriousness to lose, celebrates a new Merkel. One who has taken the initiative to try stop the fighting in the Ukraine, and “contrary to her preferred modus operandi, has embarked on a mission with an uncertain outcome”. Along with a detailed description of the Minsk negotiations, the magazine speaks of a major change of style. After a history of being critical of Merkel for “dithering in the face of tough decisions” it admires her now for “making moves she would have avoided in the past”, and concludes that she has switched from foreign policy ‘idealism’ (principles) to realpolitik. In this and other Spiegel articles, as well as most articles on the subject all over Europe, the elephant in the room is studiously overlooked. But the Der Spiegel editors do acknowledge who is boss, as they comment on Obama that “he is a president who gives Merkel room, and a chance, to make her own foreign policy, a European foreign policy,” almost as if, under their breath, they thank him for his generosity on this occasion.
With respect to the looming threat of a proxy war in the Ukraine the leading question is whether the peace party that Merkel has formed with Francois Hollande can outlive any further Washington meddling aimed at preventing a de facto partition of the Ukraine. In feverishly nationalist neocon eyes what is at stake with propping up the Kiev regime, and helping it defeat the separatists, can only loom bigger than before they meddled in the Ukraine. By initiating the crisis and with their containment moves on the Asian side, they themselves have driven the two former communist giants of the Eurasian continent into each other’s arms. There are now new Russian-Chinese trade and mutual assistance commitments, and their joint efforts to establish an alternative to the dollar for global trade and aid purposes have intensified. The new ‘silk road’ projects that will connect China’s coastal cities with European ports by high-speed trains, and which promise to make the heaviest trade traffic in human history possible, can only appear as an ultimate threat to ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ ambitions. It would be a miracle if the second Minsk ceasefire agreement also ended the recent history of NATO provocations, together with Washington’s sabotaging of Europe-Russian commercial relations. Barack Obama has never shown the kind of presidential control and resolve that made Harry Truman fire General Douglas McArthur.
We may be witnessing a restoration of significant French-German cooperation, which evidently began over a lengthy dinner at the end of January in Strasbourg. Almost surely relevant as well was that Merkel and Hollande went to the Kremlin without their usual entourage, evidently to minimize the possibility of American eavesdropping. It would seem that the French, more than the Germans have begun to see that the Atlanticism fervently on display in 2014, and unreservedly preached by Europe’s mainstream media, has created a funnel to political suffocation and perhaps fullscale war. For the peace party to succeed in the long term, and for European-Russian relations to be repaired and go towards where they were before waves of Putin vilification poisoned Europe’s public discussion, Merkel will have to paper over her earlier shared general European assumptions of Putin as the aggressor in the Ukraine and her earlier bad misunderstanding of the crisis.
Peace party heroism now masks Merkel’s factual defeat by having to take seriously what Putin had been suggesting all along with his repeated diplomatic proposals ever since the putsch in Kiev last year. Is she now also ready to accept the defeat of her story about lazy Greeks properly punished by an austerity program? The number of Europeans who still believe that original story has dwindled significantly. In spite of continued scornful and belittling mainstream misreporting in Northern Europe’s mainstream media about the attempts by Yanis Varoufakis to break through the rigidity of Europe’s financial apparatchiks, sympathy has grown for the new Greek government trying to save their nation.
The last time we had anything remotely resembling what the ‘troika’ of European Commission, ECB, and IMF was doing to Greece, was in the days of ‘bleeding’ as medical remedy for various illnesses. That flourished in ancient Greece and medieval Europe when surgeons believed that illnesses were caused by an imbalance of body ‘humors’. It was discontinued just before the twentieth century. A hundred years later the comparable method of starving public sectors, making them as skinny as possible has been conquering the world. For centuries a fainting patient was considered proof that the treatment was working, and the weaker ones naturally died. But the difference between bloodletting in the past and the economic austerity of today, is that bloodletting was frequently not fatal, while starving countries’ public sectors leads inexorably to ever deeper economic tragedy.
By now the only people who still stick to the unreason of bleeding, at least publicly, are the top officials of Europe’s finance ministries, with Germany’s Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble in the lead. I think they cannot believe in it, but they must be constantly aware of the interests they in fact represent, which have been prospering from Greece’s bleeding. But, surprise, the IMF, whose record of enthusiastic economic bloodletting in South America and Africa brought its continued existence in danger until the Euro countries asked it to come and help, has turned out to be relatively supportive for the aims of the Syriza government. As we know, the American Treasury controls the IMF. For the moment Washington does not want to have to deal with disintegration of the euro or European Union.
Merkel does not of course want to go down in history as the autocrat who made disintegation happen. A very interesting and telling split in the German top was revealed when in the last phase Germany’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel spoke of the Greek final proposal as an acceptable basis for negotiation after Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, had denied this. The next thing that happened was a phone call from Merkel to Alexis Tsipras, her Greek colleague, that changed the atmosphere.
Did the German chancellor rise to the occasion here, characteristically at a late moment, in a seemingly trivial but factually big way? There are other cases in her political past where her well-known slow-motion decision making speeds up when her physicist-chemist trained mind has collected all available evidence. She also does not seem to mind that a political associate walks into a wall as a result.
Mainstream media reports on the confrontation between Varoufakis and the European authorities have mostly concealed the fact that Schäuble took a step back, as they made it appear that the Greek government was too sure of itself and invited humiliation. Reporters and analysts can be relied upon unwittingly to fall in line with Merkel’s image-making behind which this, in her domestic setting rather ruthless, politician practices what Der Spiegel now calls ‘realpolitik’.
The dogmatic rigidity of the troika serves to give this combination of institutions a semblance of legitimacy, which would be undermined if it ended its austerity demands. Their lording it over the nations that fell victim to the misbehavior of the Northern banks does not rest on democratic legitimacy. Neither has it possessed legitimacy rooted in knowledge and capacity or political wisdom. Europe’s populations have been expected to accept that IMF, ECB, and their ministers of finance have profound understanding of economies and know what in the end is good for all. This is no longer widely believed. The rigidity of the ministers of finance on display in Brussels last month must have been inspired, more specifically, by a newly emerging threat to the power of present incumbents.
If the Syriza government in Athens succeeds in making headway in its promised fight against corruption and tax evasion during the four months extension of a loan agreement it has been given, and if it then manages, gradually and with new negotiations, to extricate itself from austerity doom, Spanish, Portuguese, and perhaps even Irish electorates will have a precedent for a new breed of politicians to invoke. In which case the authorities may begin to see the first outlines of a new spectre to haunt Europe. When Varoufakis kept referring to the fact that what he was doing for Greece, was very much also for Europe as a whole, this man of great intellectual capacity and integrity was not disingeneous.
Having once almost personified the two big things that are wrong with Europe, Atlanticist submission and austerity policies, does the German Chancellor have it in her to lead Europe away from those? She appears to be the only politician who can win from the ECB, IMF, EU Commission, and possibly even Obama. Circumstances are forcing this accidental autocrat to come to terms with the two great political perversions of our age: the subjection of the mass of the world’s human beings to a life ultimately dictated by the very few – the infamous 1% – and an irrepressible warmaking spirit that seeks fulfillment of fantasies of total global control.
Is this accidental autocrat aware of how huge, how monumental a difference she could make?