Just as Angela Merkel’s reputation as the world leader of Liberal Democracy – not difficult while Donald Trump was in office – is fading following a series of fiascos, she has been outflanked by the progressive policies of Joe Biden. As she departs the political stage she is looking ever more like a tired Margaret Thatcher without the moral handbag. And EU citizens?
“’How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out?” With this question ultra-conservative US politician Sarah Palin changed the world. In 2010 Palin had recognised the hollowness and toxic neo-liberal nature of the Obama administration that was serving the interests of a small minority of wealthy Americans and its political significance for the Republicans. Seven years later enough US voters had come to a similar conclusion and did the inconceivable, rejecting more Hopey, Changey under Hilary Clinton, instead electing Donald Trump as president of the USA.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has become the face of the EU, representing a better future, a better Europe. She is the enlightened facade behind which the death and destruction of lives and livelihoods, the environment, and European values has and continues to occur. It is the same political role she plays in Germany. Corporate profits are all that count, the rest is the building of a massive hopey, changey Potemkin Village. The EU has become an entity where reality and claims are diametrically opposed. The examples are ineffable, and Merkel’s rejection of Joe Biden’s initiative to waive patents of COVID vaccines was not an aberration. It is just another link in the chain of her political legacy. It is worth looking at this legacy – the little one can cover in an article of this length – in an attempt to see what is behind her signalling of virtue, which has so elated the European Left.
Hopey, Changey with Erdogan
On 18 October 2015 Merkel met with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under a rapidly mounting political backlash at home due to the refugee influx needed to provide cheap labour in Germany, her government negotiated a deal with Erdogan to stop the flow of migrants. She promised Erdogan three billion euros, put visa-free travel to the EU for Turks from 2016 on the negotiating table, as well as the resumption of frozen discussions on Turkey’s EU membership. All this in return for closing Turkey’s border to the EU for refugees. The plan was presented to the EU just a couple of days before Merkel’s scheduled meeting with Erdogan as a fait accompli. The union members as so often had no other choice than to rubber stamp the German hegemon’s will. EU officials at the time mendaciously claimed no concrete promises had been made to the Turkish president beyond an offer of about €500m in aid from the EU’s budget. Merkel’s headline figure was then agreed with Erdogan, apparently Germany making up the difference. This move helped politically stabilise both leaders who were in the midst of major political crises.
A year and a half later, just weeks before a crucial Turkish constitutional referendum, which was to open the door to Erdogan’s dictatorship, Merkel again travelled to Turkey to meet Erdogan, providing the Turkish leader with valuable propaganda for his campaign. Further billions were promised. Back home Merkel, the EU, and mainstream media peddle criticism of the anti-democratic Turkish leader. The fazit: you can do business with Erdogan, which is more important than democratic values. Thus the poster girl of European virtuousness condemned thousands of refugees to drowning in the Mediterranean and aided in the creation of a dictatorship in Turkey. Merkel is what what Donald Trump failed at: a Dealmaker.
But the dirty work was not left to Erdogan alone. Where refugees slip through or take other routes, ships of the EU’s border agency Frontex simply push back their boats – of course in violation of international law – leaving many to die on the open sea. But read the website of the EU internet page concerning Common European Asylum System and you will find this: “The European Union is an area of protection for people fleeing persecution or serious harm in their country of origin.” While the Right is satisfied that the EU border has been almost hermetically closed to refugees, the Left celebrates that the EU is open to refugees. Both politely ignore the corpses in the Mediterranean.
What no one wants to admit is that the hopey, changey EU narrative has been falling apart along with Merkel’s reputation. That the EU was incapable of providing a unified response to the COVID crisis is no secret as national borders were closed and some EU nations withheld medical supplies (including Merkel’s Germany) from other EU nations in acute need. The EU’s attempt to coordinate a vaccine programme has been a disaster – still ongoing. Even Boris Johnson in the UK did a better job – and that is saying a lot.
We are witnessing similar developments with regard to climate change. The EU is currently adopting Merkel’s “Brown Deal”, although recently her in mainstream media much heralded “National Climate Programme” for Germany has been ruled unconstitutional by Germany’s highest court because it does not fulfil the requisite climate goals. As in Germany, intransparent back room deals between lobbyists and EU politicians and technocrats are producing over-promising and under-delivering measures that instead of halting climate warming are prioritising corporate profits. There is lots of spin, but truly effective measures are not yet recognisable. The EU already missed its chance during the COVID crisis to start building back better. Instead it permitted governments to subvention high polluting industries, often without conditions.
Wherever you look, you will find that the EU is inexorably advancing neo-liberalism to the sole benefit of corporations. Inequality is increasing and similar to the developments in the USA it is the youth that are in the cross-hairs of EU policy of redistribution from the bottom to the top 1%. Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 40%, Italy of 33%. This does not include underemployment or precarious employment, where numbers are also very high. In Southern and Eastern Europe the youth has a choice between no job, a very poorly paid job at home, or just a poorly paid job under often terrible conditions in North-Western Europe. What ever happened to hopey, changey convergence?
Eastern EU Nations: Where is Hopey, Changey?
An interesting phenomenon are many Eastern EU member states. There citizens have been going onto the streets in protest against their unabashedly corrupt governments and the dysfunctionality of their supposedly democratic institutions. They are incredulous that the EU does nothing to stop the rampant corruption that defines their governments and their policies. Like Erdogan, their leaders have learnt that the EU is a paper tiger with regards to laws and rules. What counts is business, especially with the EU hegemon Germany. They provide cheap labour for Western Europe and can do what they wish at home, which is not only good for profits, but undermines unions in the West.
In a brilliant piece of real investigative journalism – not just presenting the newest scandal, but connecting the dots to explain the situation – the Hungarian journalist Panyi Szabolcs in a lengthy article entitled “How Orbán played Germany, Europe’s great power” documents how Victor Orban has developed a relationship based on mutual benefits and dependence with German policy makers and influential German companies. The EU is irrelevant in Szabolcs’ account. Orban’s strategy, according to Szablocs, has been “there should be a strong Hungarian presence where it’s possible, but let the Germans dominate where it isn’t. Audi, Mercedes, BMW all know that they can count on Hungary’s stable, long-term support” and he on theirs. In critical moments he asks them to tell Merkel what to do and she then tells the EU what to do. These German companies give up much-talked-about democratic values when it is a question of profits. In the meantime Orban is decried in the EU discourse as “illiberal”, a dictator. or even a fascist. Like Erdogan, he too receives billions from the EU. In fact Orban is one of the shrewdest politicians in the EU who truly understands realpolitik. even calling the EU liberal democratic bluff. Many other leaders of Eastern European EU member states do not have Orban’s intellectual powers or sense of long-termism (he has been prime minister since 2010 and is the EU’s second-longest serving leader after Merkel) and simply plunder and run, giving way to the next corrupt politicians. Like Orban they have understood that all that counts in the EU is providing German corporations with what they want.
Russia too has cashed in on German EU hegemony. Merkel and the EU may decry Putin’s government and impose pseudo sanctions, but Germany is building the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline with Russia. The pipeline will provide Germany with natural gas, which environmental economists say it does not need and contradicts climate policy. But the Germans are placing their bets on liquid hydrogen as “a clean source of energy” to power their SUVs, limousines, lorries, planes, and industry – except it isn’t clean when produced with liquid gas. Just another political Potemkin village.
Putin, like Orban, knows how Germany and the EU tick. Despite EU sanctions due to the occupation of Crimea by Russia the German company Siemens simply delivered gas turbines to a Russian port just across the Black Sea from Crimea, which were then transferred to another ship and installed in Crimea, providing it with electricity autonomy. How much the Russia respects EU Hopey, Changey was displayed recently as Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov berated the EU foreign minister Borrell publicly or its current treatment of the dissident Navalny. Economically Russia, like China, has Germany in its hand due to its dependence on gas. The EU blusters on, but has anyone heard Merkel threatening to cancel Nordstream 2 or boycott Russian gas? This is the price of Germany’s mercantile policy.
Other leaders have learnt to game Hopey, Changey. Rules and laws don’t count. Poland has gone its own way despite the roar from Brussels. Italy’s prime Minister Mario Draghi will be the next case of ignoring EU laws and rules, as he, probably more than anyone else has understood that they are irrelevant, having trashed them as head of the European Central Bank, thus saving the euro and the EU. EU technocrats keep seeking new rules to stop the disintegration of their control on the periphery. Without success.
What has Become of Hopey, Changey?
Merkel’s unbridled neo-liberalism has not only corrupted democracy as lobbyists purchase and determine EU and national policy throughout Europe, but has allowed many corporations to become crime syndicates. In Germany just enter “diesel cheating device”, “Cum Ex”, “Wirecard”, “Greensill Bank”, “Greece, corruption, German companies” in your search machine. All seem to have enjoyed protection by the German government, its agencies, and public prosecutors. The system of cartels and monopolies in the EU could only thrive thanks to the protection by the EU, Merkel’s rejection of waiving patents for COVID vaccines being the most recent example. Or if you really want to have a good laugh, check out “tax havens in the EU”.
Under Merkel the EU has abdicated its responsibility to its citizens. It has been fascinating to see how Germans have created some of the most incredible conspiracy theories to explain the excessive lockdowns due to Covid in their nation. They only needed to turn to the business page of their newspaper or news website to find the answer. They are full of headlines of how Germany’s export machine has thrived despite the pandemic. Factories have been running at full throttle, while to keep down the infection statistics everyone else was locked down. The exception was the previous summer when the German airlines, tourism sector, and industrialist (how are the Southern Europeans going to buy our products if German tourists don’t spend billions there?) put her under pressure to permit tourists to go on holiday. These tourists then brought the second COVID wave home with them. And if the corpses were piled high, then so what? It’s the exports stupid!
Merkel and the EU also have no difficulty reverting to EU nationalism. One cannot imagine the resentment among many Germans that after Brexit the UK has not sunk back into the sea as had been predicted in German mainstream media. Wasn’t Boris Johnson supposed to appear in sackcloth and covered in ashes at the entrance of the EU parliament shouting “Take us back. Take us back.” Now the EU has discovered its commitment to national self determination defending Scotland’s right to an independence referendum to leave Britain. Odd, in Catalonia they supported the brutal repression of the Catalan independence referendum.
What much of the American establishment learnt from Hopey, Changey is what Abraham Lincoln termed: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Even with mainstream media and lots of spin. The result in the USA was the Trump presidency. Biden is not a radical. But Americans are more pragmatic than ideological Europeans. He is providing change. It may not be revolutionary, but it is tangible. The possibility of a return of Trump or worse is simply too harrowing.
Europe however has a not so distant history of absolutism and fascism and may be able to better accommodate itself with such a regimen. If Trump had said “America and Europe First”, Europeans could well have become great supporters of his presidency. Neo-liberalism functions much better under fascism than democracy anyway. We can already see that in Eastern and Southern Europe the presence of the far right is increasing under the motto Hopey, Changey has failed, let’s give the others a chance.
Europe has a youth that has supported Hopey, Changey, painted their faces blue with yellow stars and wrapped themselves in EU flags humming the Ode to Joy. What happens when they become adults and realise that there is no hope, no change, and their planet is being destroyed to provide more profit for the 1%. They certainly will not find much solace that Germany is the world’s export champion. And like many in the USA, they may not care about democracy, which they will by then equate with Hopey, Changey.
Matthew D Rose is an investigative journalist specialising in organised political crime in Germany and an editor of the website Brave New Europe. This article first appeared on that site at https://braveneweurope.com/mathew-d-rose-angela-merkel-the-end-of-hopey-changey-eu/