Like it or not, global leadership has been thrust upon Germany.
Editorial, 2 enero 2016 / FINANCIAL TIMES
Chancellor Angela Merkel thought long and hard about whether to run for office again in Germany’s 2017 parliamentary election. She has made the right choice in standing for a fourth term, despite the dangers of staying in power too long that have plagued many long-serving leaders, not least her mentor, Helmut Kohl.
With Donald Trump moving into the White House, Ms Merkel has faced calls to assume the mantle of leader of the western liberal world from Barack Obama. She dismisses the demands as “grotesque and absurd,” but she may not have much choice in the matter. The job is thrust upon her by the lack of another plausible candidate and the admirable positions she has staked out. She has pledged to fight for democracy, free trade and open societies, and has refused to leave the field to nationalists, whether Mr Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.
It is certainly a moment in history when a German chancellor assumes this role. Seven decades after the destruction of Nazi Germany, Berlin is once more in a position to contemplate global leadership, albeit cautiously. This is a tribute to the country’s transformation since 1945, to its ranking as an economic superpower, and its primacy in the European Union.
Even more, it is a reflection of the disengagement of others, notably a Brexit-bound UK, a weak France, and the US, which under Mr Obama has curtailed its involvement in global affairs.
Ms Merkel rightly insists that Berlin will move forward only with partners. Germany lacks the economic resources and military power of the US. It is fated by history and geography to work with European allies, even as the EU struggles for coherence.
Of course, Ms Merkel will not be leading anything if she does not win the election. As head of the conservative CDU/CSU bloc, the chancellor has to regain the trust she lost by keeping Germany’s border open for refugees in summer 2015, a job made harder by the Christmas market attack last month. Whilst insisting that she was right at the time, Ms Merkel has since tightened asylum rules and supported a controversial EU-Turkey migrant deal. The country remains divided, with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany capitalising on sentiment against Ms Merkel. She is favourite to win this year’s poll but on her watch, the AfD could become the first far-right party since 1945 in the German parliament.
Should she win, the chancellor will be entrusted with holding the EU together. With populism rampant, increased co-operation is a hard sell. She should push more for common security policies to address terrorism and maintain unity on sanctions on Russia provoked by the Ukraine crisis; the aim must be to show that the EU is still capable of decisive action and keep up pressure on Moscow. In Mediterranean countries, where unemployment fuels populism, she must allow more flexibility in eurozone fiscal rules.
Meanwhile, Ms Merkel has to try to find an accommodation with Mr Trump. Despite his pledges to reduce US commitments to Nato, there may be common ground in curbing Islamist terror and promoting stability in the Middle East. Ms Merkel will have to work hard to persuade Mr Trump that his evident sympathies for Mr Putin are badly misplaced.
Finally, as she has said herself, ways must be found to win public support for globalisation. Without it, the world will be poorer and more dangerous. The benefits, though, must be spread fairly. It will be a tough line to pursue in a hostile environment but who better to try than the German chancellor?