1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Merkel and the EU crisis

Bernd Riegert / gb
September 19, 2013

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steering Europe through the debt crisis for the last four years, and she's lost many friends doing so. But who else could have done it?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference REUTERS/Andrea Comas
Image: Reuters

"If the euro fails, Europe fails. We can't let that happen," Angela Merkel said in October 2011. She has repeated it so often since then that it has become a leitmotif of her European crisis policy.

The chancellor was initially reluctant to offer financial aid to countries in crisis, but then she helped construct the European Union's rescue fund and debt relief plans - ultimately agreeing to the European Central Bank's bond-buying program. "That was new territory for us," the chancellor admitted later.

"The EU today is not the EU of five years ago. A great deal has been done because the crisis is so deep and fundamental," said Yanis Emmanouilidis, economist at the Brussels-based European Policy Center. "In these three, four, five years the German government and the chancellor have played a key role."

Slow to lead

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and her husband Joachim Sauer hike towards the 3128 metre high peak of the Dossobello di Dentro (Hinteres Schoeneck) during their annual summer vacation in the northern Italian Alpine mountain resort of Sulden in South Tyrol August 2, 2013. Picture taken August 2, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer (ITALY - Tags: POLITICS)
Merkel and the rocky road to EuropeImage: Reuters

Emmanouilidis believes Merkel did not seek to be the leader, but as the head of the biggest economic power on the continent, rejecting it was not an option.

"I don't think she wanted it, but once the situation was there she stepped into the role. Many partners asked that she, that Germany, take the lead," he said.

Describing Germany as "Europe's reluctant hegemon," British business magazine "The Economist" recently called on the government to push through even more reforms in the EU, in addition to the fiscal pact, banking union and the debt ceiling.

EU members mapping the course

The euro crisis and its German management have shifted the balance of power in Brussels. The once powerful EU Commission, which proposed laws and monitored developments, has lost ground because it was too slow and inflexible - at least according to the German government. The European Parliament has little influence because the money needed to rescue ailing banks comes mainly from the national budgets of member states. In short, the Council of Ministers, where national governments are represented, is now running the show.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague summed it up during a debate at the Open Europe think tank in London: "Among all the European institutions, the Council, which answers to national parliaments, has taken over the leadership because it's about decisions that cost money. But people quite naturally look to their national parliaments as the legitimate decision-makers."

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) erläutert am Donnerstagmorgen (27.10.2011) in Brüssel die Ergebnisse des EU-Gipfels. Die Euro-Staaten und die Banken haben sich auf einen teilweisen Schuldenerlass für Griechenland geeinigt. Demnach sollen private Gläubiger wie Banken und Versicherer auf 50 Prozent ihrer Forderungen verzichten. Foto: Oliver Berg dpa
Merkel is not the only one who wants less input from BrusselsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Britain's euroskeptic government and the Netherlands are now demanding extensive reforms. The Netherlands recently published a report outlining ways to reduce the EU's alleged overstepping of its authority and desire to regulate everything in excessive detail.

After Sunday's general election (22.09.2013), the German government will have to come to terms with these growing trends across Europe. Should she remain in office, Merkel is said to be planning another course correction in the euro crisis. Media reports suggest she is planning to divest Brussels of power and jurisdictions.

German business daily "Handelsblatt" has reported that Merkel intends to seek more direct agreements between member states rather than through Brussels, and during her election campaign the chancellor said she saw "no need to give more authority to Brussels." But only a few months ago, at the height of the euro crisis, her motto was "more Europe" - in other words, a deeper economic and monetary union.

Radical reforms after election?

Businessman sinking in heap of documents © Nomad_Soul
Many Europeans accuse Brussels of regulation maniaImage: Nomad_Soul - Fotolia.com

Lord Rodney Leach of Fairford, the critical director of the Open Europe think tank, is calling for a radical trimming of the EU in the wake of the crisis. Opinion polls, particularly in Germany, indicate that people are losing confidence in the EU.

The chancellor will have to respond to these trends. Any head of the German government must respond to this, says Lord Leach. "Logic requires that Berlin support radical reforms because that is what the voters support. That is what many voters in Europe support. It fits northern European instincts," he said.

Udo Bullmann, on the other hand, has his doubts about whether Merkel has the strength to pursue reforms, whatever direction they take. The Social Democratic member of the European Parliament told DW that Merkel had "spread the art of sitting things out all across Europe, bringing the eurozone to the brink of collapse month after month. That has to change."

No major changes

But according to Open Europe, nothing major will change in Germany's European policies after the September 22 election, even if Merkel is no longer chancellor.

A German and an European flag, bottom, wave in the wind near the German Parliament building, in Berlin, Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Germany's governing parties called for the introduction of a tax in Europe and beyond on financial markets, though they left details of the plan open. The call came before the German parliament on Wednesday, May 19, 2010 will starts considering the‚ 750 billion Euro (US $1 trillion) rescue package to help eurozone nations avoid default. (ddp images/AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
National governments see themselves above the EUImage: AP

The equation is not "Merkel fails, the euro fails, Europe fails." A left-wing government in Berlin would perhaps be a bit friendlier toward crisis countries, but taxpayer's and voter's money would be kept together.

The Social Democrats share Merkel's instinct to keep budget deficits low, says Nina Schick of Open Europe. After all, with the exception of the Left party, the fundamentals of the euro rescue scheme were supported by all of Germany's political parties.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Tank firing at night
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage