Angela Merkel isn’t due to meet François Hollande for the first time until next week, but she must think she already knows him fairly well. Otherwise her senior diplomats wouldn’t have confidently announced that the German and French head of state will find a “pragmatic solution” over the new fiscal pact, as they told Süddeutsche Zeitung last week. But then she would say that: pragmatism is what Merkel is all about.
When not quipping for the 100th time that the new Franco-German alliance at the heart of European politics will no longer be known as “Merkozy” but as “Merde”, the British press still tends to talk of continental diplomacy in terms of all-or-nothing-pacts and cloak-and-dagger intrigues. In fact, the German leader has long outlived the ideology-driven politics of the early 20th century: Merkel’s leadership style in Europe has become a perfect lesson in the best and worst of Anglo-Saxon-style wait-and-see pragmatism.
There are certainly some in Merkel’s Christian Democrats who believe with their heart and soul in fiscal prudence and austerity, but Merkel isn’t one of them. In fact, she changed to a pro-growth tune as soon as a Hollande victory looked likely back in April. We think Cameron does U-turns – Merkel does cartwheels. Her ministerial track record is stained with skid marks on military intervention in Afghanistan, state subventions, euro bailouts and, most spectacularly, nuclear power.
What’s surprising is that she manages to get away with it. In Sunday’s local elections in Schleswig Holstein, her party lost 0.7%, while her coalition partner, the Free Democrats, lost 6.7%. Yet the German media was somehow tricked into writing it up as a defeat for the Social Democrats and Greens, who missed out on a complete majority thanks to the ongoing success of the Pirate Party, who are mopping up a large share of the protest vote. Next weekend’s election on North Rhine-Westphalia is likely to paint a similar picture of a declining liberal party and a not-quite-strong-enough left.
In fact, the rumour is that Merkel has already realised that Europe’s current economic strategy isn’t working, and that she may well be reaching for the escape button before it is too late. There’s talk in Berlin of Merkel calling for an early election in September, ditching the Free Democrats and heading for a grand coalition with the Social Democrats: it would not only put her in a stronger position when the economic storm finally arrives in Germany, but also would enable her to make some concession to Hollande, such as a financial transaction tax, currently opposed by the liberals.
Hollande’s warning shot to France’s easterly neighbour – “it is not for Germany to decide for the rest of Europe” – has led some to proclaim “the end of austerity”. Whether he will actually live up to his rhetoric is another matter. In last week’s TV debate, he made repeated references to the success of the German model; parliamentary president Jean-Marc Ayrault, who knows Germany well, is lined up for a leading ministerial role.
What’s more likely than a big bust-up is that the two will readjust and get on. Back in 1981 there were similar fears over a Franco-German fallout as Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt found himself faced with a newly elected Socialist François Mitterrand. A report by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF), released this week, reveals Schmidt’s frustration with Mitterrand then: “Your means and your methods are such that we cannot harmonise them”. But Schmidt was soon voted out, and conservative Helmut Kohl and Mitterrand got on like a house on fire. One of the quirks of Franco-German relations is that people from opposite ends of the political spectrum often get on better than people from the same party.
Still, Hollande had better be careful: he is facing a slippery negotiation partner. The danger for Europe is not that the French and German leaders won’t get on, but that Merkel tricks Hollande into thinking he has won the argument while Europe continues on the same precarious path as before.
Philip Oltermann is deputy editor of Comment is free and the author of Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters.