The Beginning of the End

The Beginning of the End

November 2018 | Politics

Political authority is a strange thing. After a decade at the top, Angela Merkel is experiencing life without the influence she once took for granted.

Political authority is a strange thing. You either have it or you don't. But, you don't know whether you have it until you've lost it. An authoritative leader commands the respect of their party, their country and other world leaders. A politician without authority is a lame duck under constant attack from allies as well as enemies. Theresa May lost her authority during last year's bungled election campaign but has stayed on because a divided Conservative party cannot agree on a suitable alternative. May remains in power because the different factions in her party are more afraid of each other than of her. Ironically, it is her lack of authority that keeps her in power. She is broadly acceptable to all of them whereas her rivals are not.

Domestic Longevity

Angela Merkel is unlikely to be so lucky. The authority of the German Chancellor was also fatally damaged by a 2017 election result. She has carried on since then in a weak and unpopular coalition with the SDP. However, a series of damaging state election results now leaves Merkel's position hanging by a thread and her government on the brink of collapse. After last week's elections in Hesse, she was forced to announce that she would be stepping down as head of the CDU when her term expires in December. She does intend to remain as Chancellor until the next federal election in 2021, but this is still a humiliating concession for someone who had previously insisted that the jobs of party leader and government leader couldn't be divided. Now she has no choice, her chances of being re-elected as head of her party were remote. Standing and losing would have left her no choice but to stand down as Chancellor. Not standing at all means she can carry on in the day job for as long as her successor allows. Gerhard Schroder tried the same trick and lasted for 17 months until forced to call an early election.

Merkel won't be so lucky, due to the other threat facing her government namely the increasingly perilous state of her Social Democratic coalition partners. If there is one silver lining for the CDU, it is that the SDP are in a worse state than they are. The CDU are still the most popular party in Germany, the SDP, on the other hand, are now third behind the Greens in both opinion polls and the recent elections in Bavaria and Hesse. Their leader is debating whether to withdraw from the grand coalition to prevent a total collapse. Their problem is that the current grand coalition was never popular with their base in the first place. It was forced on them as the only possible stable government following the failure of negotiations with the FDP and the Greens. Even if they continue the coalition, it is possible that the election of a more right wing CDU leader in December may change their minds. More importantly, if that leader turns out to be more popular than Merkel, then he or she may force the Chancellor out and then call a snap election to get a new mandate. Authority in this situation would lie with Merkel's successor as party leader rather than a tired and defeated Chancellor at the end of her career.

This would actually help the SDP immensely. In any election, the SDP would be reduced to third largest party in the Bundestag, leading to a Grand Coalition between the CDU and the Greens. The SDP would be the largest opposition party, giving them space for renewal and rebuilding their platform, something that cannot be achieved whilst they are junior coalition partners. It may also lead to new leadership as Andrea Nahles ascension to the top job was controversial in the first place. Not everyone in her party believes she should have gotten the job to begin with.

International institutions

This chaos comes at a difficult time for the EU. The Italian populist government is in open rebellion against the ECB after it rejected their budget. It needs backing from the member states to enforce sanctions. The strict handling of Greece and others in the financial crisis was in large part due to German leadership, a fact recognised by all involved. Allowing periphery countries to bend eurozone rules was what precipitated the debt crisis in the first place, and Merkel has spent a lot of energy in making sure it doesn't happen again. If France had been the dominant force than the commission's treatment of the Greeks would have been very different.

The problem the commission has is that Italy is not a periphery country - it is one of the EU's largest and most important economies. Italian nationals hold more of the EU's top jobs than any other country, a situation intended to balance the influence that the German government has wielded in recent years. Now that influence has reduced, leaving the commission with the power to impose budgetary sanctions against Italy but not the moral authority. The new Italian government does not believe that the EU should be able to impose sanctions regardless of what the treaties say. Only the opposition parties in Rome support the fiscal pact that underpins the euro. The Greeks tried to negotiate a solution, but their opposition to the eurozone rules didn't matter due to an imbalance of power - they were too small and too broke to resist European demands. This imbalance doesn't exist with Italy, as there is no immediate fiscal pressure weighing on the Italian economy now that the banking crisis there has been mitigated at least partially. There isn't any effective pressure on the League and their coalition partners to compromise with Brussels. The only voices calling for compromise on the budget belong to the opposition both domestically and internationally. Unless financial markets stop buying Italian bonds resulting in a debt crisis, there is no way to force their compliance unwillingly.

This exposes the inherent weakness of the EU - its power is limited and its authority is restricted to those who believe in it. Opponents complain about a democratic deficit, but at the same time oppose any measures that would grant it the democratic legitimacy that supporters yearn for. The EU is broadly popular among Europeans, even opponents are pressing for reform rather than dissolution, but few believe that its authority should transcend that of its members. The powers it has are devolved upwards from nation states, who remain the final decision makers in most matters. States jealously guard that right, but so long as they do the commission has no real right to enforce sanctions when governments choose to break the rules. Authority is a two way street, the EU can only exercise it if European citizens recognise it, which few do. Sanctions still have power in proportion to their impact on the sanctioned, but there is no moral authority to force reluctant compliance. Nor is that ever likely to happen, because it would require the consent of the governed. There is only one form of political authority that Europeans recognise - democratic legitimacy - but even that requires a degree of authority that the EU simply doesn't have in the eyes of its citizens.

Written by Alan Chatfield