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Mrs Merkel, isolated on the European political chessboard?

, by Marjorie Even, Translated by Dimitra Sarvani

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The German Vice-Chancellor, from the social democratic SPD party, Sigmar Gabriel, has started over-shadowing Chancellor Merkel, not only in Germany but in Europe as well, where he is increasingly popular with his European socialist counterparts. Here is why.

Angela Merkel – Crédit photographique: Glyn Lowe Photoworks

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The German socialists managed to impose in the great coalition CDU/SPD.

Whatever happened to Angela Merkel’s influence? Is she still the one setting Europe and Germany’s agenda? Although the past elections of September 2013 have confirmed the popularity of the German ‘Mutti’ (‘Mummy’), granting her the role of Head of State for the third consecutive time, the socialists now have a word to say in the government, in which they play an important role within the great coalition. And they make themselves heard: The conservatives are conscious that they play the political partition as a duet. A concert of social reforms is being implemented in the country and not minor ones: progressive instauration of a minimum wage of €8.5 as of 2015 or 2017 depending on sectors, lowering of retirement age at 63 years instead of 67, instauration of women quota. Though it seems they manage to reach a compromises, these were only settled after bitter discussions between the conservatives and socialists. And the SPD visibly manages better than the CDU to implement its ideas in the country.

In Europe, Mrs Merkel does not manage to set the tone anymore.

Mme Merkel cannot turn a deaf ear to the alarm bell stroke by the rise of extreme right European parties during the last European elections. In a recent speech on June 4th in Berlin, she presented a vision of a strong Europe, competitive and open to reforms, insisting on an agenda for growth and employment, the same that she made explicit before the last European elections – the only difference being that she has recognised that citizens demanded a better response to the crisis. Yet, it seems the results of the 2014 European elections reflected the bitterness of European citizens, faced with a crisis against which policies implemented so far did not have enough of an impact? Besides people’s disapproval austerity policies, Juncker does not share Angela Merkel’s ideas on the political chessboard, as he advocates more solidarity. Will Mrs Merkel be able to impose her ideas upon the new President of the Commission and achieve compromises? Or will she soften her ideas?

Besides, she has made it clear that on a political level, she felt closer to British leader Cameron than French President Hollande or the Heads of State from Southern Europe. Thus, as Cameron opposed Juncker, the Chancellor wanted to support the British prime minister, thereby turning abruptly her back to the EPP candidate, in favour of whom she initially pleaded. Ιt seems she has been the only one to take seriously the death knell that the British Prime minister has sounded to make an imminent referendum in his country on its EU membership if the Luxembourgish became head of the Commission. Mrs Merkel has tried to become an ally of M. Cameron, due to a lack of support by other European leaders. Hence, she has met with the conservative State leaders Cameron, Dutch Rutte and Swedish Reinfeldt, who all opposed Juncker, on 10th June in Sweden. The German Chancellor then returned to her initial position – in support of Juncker – which shows that her initial manoeuvre was merely a political strategy. She cannot afford to distance herself from other European leaders to that point.

Indeed, the French and Italian governments, as well as others on which the Chancellor can count, consider that she has a too much influence in Europe. And they don not hesitate to ask the social-democratic vice-president and Minister of Finance M. Gabriel for help.

Τhe European socialist leaders prefer turning to M. Gabriel

He himself addressed countries in crisis on the 20th of June, to which he wishes to offer a helping hand, by proposing ‘true reforms against more time for the reduction of deficit’, before adding that such a strategy could yield its fruits, as it did for Germany after the implementation of ‘Agenda 2010’. Indeed, the country at the beginning of the 2000’s was considered as the ‘sick man of Europe’. Having then implemented the ‘Agenda 2010’ under Gerhard Schroeder, who foresaw the implementation of a welfare State through drastic reforms aiming at making the labour market more flexible in order to fight unemployment, improve labour policies and boost competitiveness. Today, Germany is often presented as a model, but we tend to forget that the transition to an economy that functions relatively well (although social aspects are a bit controversial today and tend to be reformed from now on) has been a long process. Is that why the current Vice-Chancellor prefers to see things in the long-term, unlike the Chancellor, who would appear most demanding and impatient with regard to countries in crisis?

Moreover, as opposed to the ‘Anti-Juncker’ summit of June 10th, the French President has invited to the Elysee palace nine European socialist leaders to talk about the future President of the Commission and has then preferred to invite M. Gabriel rather than Mrs Merkel (with among others the most renown the Italian Renzi, the Belgian di Rupo, the Austrian Faymann, the Danish Thorning-Schmidt as well as Martin Schulz, socialist candidate for president of the Commission and president of the European Parliament). The tandem Merkel-Hollande would compete with the duet Gabriel-Hollande? The German socialist starts to overshadow the Chancellor, he well intends to show to his European counterparts that Merkel is not the only one to run in Europe, and although a member of the German great coalition, he has just as much an important role to play in Brussels. He already inspired new ideas to improve the functioning of the Commission: setting up a tighter Executive Board, composed of five or six commissioners, the type of body that would better adapt than the twenty eight commissioners, with the aim of better coordinating the Commission’s work, and to avoid any incoherence between its members.

How will Mrs Merkel orchestrate the new European partition? One thing is certain: the choir of socialists is determined to make itself heard within European institutions, where conservatives and social-democrats will have to agree to make compromises – just like the German great coalition government? What will then be Angela Merkel’s influence?

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