11-12-2018 | Vision
The twilight of the Merkel era (playfully referred to in German as Merkeldämmerung) could be added to the list of political risks for the Eurozone in 2019.
  • Léon  Cornelissen
    Chief Economist
After 13 years as chancellor, part of which during the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is difficult to imagine life without Mutti (mummy). As if – with the populist revolt sweeping across the world – there aren’t enough reasons to worry about political stability in Germany and the Eurozone. If we look more closely, however, there is less reason to panic.

Reactive, defensive and cautious

Firstly, whatever Merkel’s merits in a broader political sense, it is difficult to be impressed by her handling of the euro crisis, which has been characterized by rather nerve-wracking ‘just-in-time management’. In particular, the much too lengthy crisis in Greece – a country insignificant in an economic sense, but geographically (geopolitically) indispensable part of NATO on its southern flank – has been allowed to run completely out of control.

OK, Merkel gave an approving nod to ECB President Mario Draghi when he made his famous “whatever it takes” comment. But one of the consequences has been an overreliance on monetary policy. On the fiscal side, the Eurozone has turned into a larger Germany, with an impressively – some would say irresponsibly – large current account surplus. Under Merkel’s leadership, a chronic lack of sufficient aggregate demand has become a structural weakness of the Eurozone – a deflationary bias, as was feared by many economists when the Maastricht Treaty was signed.

Proposals by French President Emmanuel Macron to create a sufficiently large macroeconomic stabilization fund on a European level have been blocked by Merkel. As has the completion of a banking union and the creation of a deposit guarantee for the Eurozone. The architecture of the Eurozone remains dangerously incomplete and Merkel’s attitude has been reactive, defensive and cautious.

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Découvrez les dernières perspectives

The vision thing

The new finance minister, the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, has changed nothing. His lack of ideas has been impressive. We shouldn’t expect any exceptional initiatives from the Merkel-Scholz team. Secondly, there is broad consensus within the German electorate on the EU, NATO, the euro, the strategic importance of the Franco-German alliance and other matters. It is impossible to predict who will be the new chancellor: Merkel-clone Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – also known as ‘AKK’ – who like Merkel lacks “the vision thing”?

The pro-business Friedrich Merz, which would be interesting seeing that Germany has “too few answers to the proposals of Emmanuel Macron”? Or, much less likely, the CDU's young, openly gay and ‘burkaphobic’ anti-Merkel populist Jens Spahn? Whoever takes up the baton could never be as inclined to continue the current Reformstau (reform jam) on a European level. Every change would be an improvement, especially in the case of Merz.

Thirdly, we are highly likely to see general elections in Germany before the end of next year, prompted by the new CDU party leader or the increasingly unhappy coalition partner of the current government, the SPD. The meteoric rise of the center-left Greens in the polls is an interesting political development in Germany and makes a so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’ (black-blue-green: CDU/FDP/Greens) much more likely.

I would expect the Greens to be much less of a disappointment to Macron than the current SPD. Moreover, Germany would really fast-track implementation of its policy to reduce the economy’s dependence on coal (don’t be overly misled by all those windmills). There are reasons to be hopeful about political developments in Germany.

This column was originally published in the December edition of Robeco Quarterly

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