The New European Political Trend: Blame Germany

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The country's austerity plans and hard debt limits are fueling anger across the continent.

merkel may1 p.jpg
German Chancellor Merkel speaks at an election rally. Reuters

Who will take the fall for Europeans' frustration with Europe right now: the European Union, Germany, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel? It seems to typically be one of those three. As the French presidential election comes to a close, that's one of the crucial questions -- particularly across the border in Germany. Each of the top three French candidates has expressed dissatisfaction with Germany's leadership in the E.U. -- in fact, they're campaigning on a promise to follow Germany's lead a bit less. "Germany doesn't decide for all of Europe," frontrunner François Hollande said a few days ago. 

Naturally, this quote was reported in the German papers, too, where there's an increasing awareness of the antipathy pouring eastwards. "Germany as Enemy," reads one headline for a story on the French election.

The backlash against Germany has to do with the austerity plans the country has championed, including the hard debt limits. This is certainly one of the objections the German papers, in trying to explain the French response, are focusing on. One writeup suggests that François Hollande won his 28.2 percent share of the vote in the election's first round over "his clear rejection of German austerity policy." Part of the backlash is also likely against the other major component of German economic policy: the costly bailouts for periphery countries such as Greece. It could also partially be pure resentment: as James Angelos pointed out, Germany's current economic strength is based in part on its' neighbors' economic weakness. The country maintains a trade surplus -- i.e. exports more than it imports -- and its trade relationships with other eurozone countries are particularly important for that. The euro has reinforced Germany's advantage by putting German products and non-German products side by side, with the German products often winning out on quality and, because of the shared currency, price.

So the French, who have in the past few years been Germany's partners in leading the E.U., even when it came to austerity, certainly have plenty of fodder for their diatribes. But as the beleaguered Germans are noticing as well, the French aren't the only ones raising objections to the German-led Union. Greek protesters have been raving about the tyranny of German demands since last fall, and right-wing European politicians such as the Dutch Geert Wilders have made the E.U. -- and, implicitly, German leadership -- a top target recently. On Monday, UK Labour leader David Miliband suggested that Britain's and Germany's austerity measures had impeded European growth and placed Britain and Germany in particular on the "back foot" in facing the current economic climate.

This could all come to a head this month, and not just with the French presidential election. Though that is perhaps the highest-profile contest in which anti-E.U. and anti-Germany sentiment is on display, an article in German paper Die Welt notes that May will also see Greek parliamentary elections and local elections in Italy, as well as an Irish referendum on the E.U.'s new fiscal treaty. "This month could change the whole of Europe," the article concludes.

But will the current backlash result in actual E.U. fragmentation? Or will it coalesce around specifically anti-German sentiment, and a movement for some sort of political counterweight to German power within the E.U.'s current framework? Or, as a third option, will scapegoaters direct their ire in particular toward Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has been the face of so many of these unpopular policies?

The backlash to European unification isn't just about irritation with Germany -- there's also been a distinct uptick in nationalism in Europe recently, as Sarkozy's recent comment about not wanting "to let France dilute itself into globalization" shows. Yet it wouldn't be too surprising if, in the coming months, Merkel took much of the heat for Europe's current complaints. That may not be fair -- Merkel has worked like mad to pull Europe together and bail out Greece, even if the bailout terms weren't exactly acceptable to the Greek public -- but it might be the simplest political path. Specific faces and people make for easy shorthand, particularly when it comes to the blame game, and particularly when the complexities of the actual problem are tough to confront. Just look at the U.S. backlash against Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein after the financial crisis.

There's precedent for Merkel functioning as a scapegoat, too. In the protests in Athens last fall, the demonstrators donned masks to portray her dancing with Adolf Hitler. Past Greek governments probably bear the most blame for the bad situation, and as for the strings German politicians and officials attached to the bailouts -- well, who could blame them? They were forking over a whole lot of money, after all.

But people get especially tense in times of economic hardship, and mobs aren't always careful in their analysis. Merkel is showing limited signs of weakness at home as her coalition fractures. Politicians in her own country might be tempted to continue to let her take the hits for unpopular measures.

Merkel has never shown signs of egocentricity or vanity. If she goes down but the E.U. emerges all the stronger for this recession, she might count it as a win. And it's still possible that the blame-game will take some unexpected twists. All the same, she might want to stick to daily briefings and keep the foreign newspapers off the breakfast table for a while: when even mainstream French candidates start campaigning against globalization and the dilution of the "nation," you know supra-nationalism isn't too popular.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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