NEW YORK – For those accustomed to the raucousness of elections on the Indian subcontinent, Europe’s own periodic festivals of democracy can seem to have the solemn bearing of a funeral. No less than the future of Europe appeared to be at stake as Germany went to the polls Sept. 22. The prospect of four more years for Angela Merkel, the chief enforcer of austerity, concentrated the minds of unemployed youth in Greece and Spain as well as derivatives traders in London.
The streets of Berlin, however, were devoid of election fervor, as though confirming an intellectually vacuous campaign in which highway tolls seemed a more urgent issue than the euro crisis.
The subliminal message of Merkel’s trademark hand gesture that outlines a diamond — dubbed the “Merkel rhombus” — may have been stability and security. But a giant billboard, strategically located near the Reichstag and featuring her restful hands, looked like an art installation rather than a campaign poster.
Even news of victory for the conservative Christian Democratic Union prompted fewer people to congregate outside the party headquarters than you would see at a provincial office of a losing side in India.
When it became clear that Germans trust “Mutti” (Mom) in greater numbers than ever before, there were some whoops from the largely middle class and middle-age guests at a CDU election party near the Chancellery. The most ebullient person at the German restaurant where I saw her supporters seemed to be its owner: a sharp-suited immigrant from north India, chuffed at his proximity to the ruling party.
The mood was predictably subdued at the beer garden in a working-class corner of Mitte, a stronghold of the opposition Social Democratic Party. Indeed, the biggest celebrations, I overheard, were being hosted by the left-wing Die Linke in Berlin’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg district. The leftists were not only celebrating their own emergence as the third-largest political group but also the failure of the pro-business Free Democratic Party and the new Euroskeptic party, Alternative for Germany, to gain any seats in the new parliament.
There was something apt about such a tame denouement to an election that had been remarkably without substantial issues, in a country with the lowest unemployment rates in Europe and small but steady gross domestic product growth.
Merkel’s conspicuous lack of what President George H.W. Bush memorably called “the vision thing” infuriates and exasperates a range of Germans, from her former mentor and ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl to the social philosopher Jurgen Habermas. And it is simply misleading to suggest, as she seemed to do during the election campaign, that all nations enjoy equal sovereignty, or that Greece and Spain as much as Germany are free to be “competitive” and to balance their budgets.
But then the inward-looking and contented Germany that the ascent of Mutti Merkel signifies is one that many in Europe have longed for since the late 19th century, when the German attempt at parity with the British and French empires sparked expensive arms races and, eventually, two calamitous world wars.
“I’m happy,” Habermas wrote recently, “to have been living in a country which, since 1945, has had no need for heroes.” This happiness should be widely shared in Europe and even envied by Asian who have to put up with the revanchist nationalism of Germany’s former partner, Japan.
I write as someone who has been pushed into a moderate Germanphilia by Britain’s occasionally xenophobic Euroskepticism and imperial posturing. Certainly, there is much to admire about Germany’s progress since 1945 — the creation, among others things, of a social-democratic state and Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik — even if you think that the reunification of Germany could have been handled less peremptorily.
Merkel’s apparent indifference today to grand projects of building or rescuing nations — in the Middle East as well as in Europe — seems rightly calibrated for a majority population that wants to enjoy its relative prosperity.
Appropriating slogans and issues from the left as well as the right, the German chancellor portends the defusing of Europe’s hoary ideological antagonisms, seemingly pointing to a fresh pragmatism.
The problem is that a lot more is expected from Merkel than the resolute defense of Germany’s national interests — a bit more public compassion for the suffering Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Irish, Portuguese, Cypriots and presumably many others in the relentlessly expanding underclass of Europe.
Those who compare Merkel to conservative chancellor Konrad Adenauer, another steward of his country’s destiny during a difficult time, seem nostalgic for an irretrievable historical period — one in which national consolidation and self- sufficiency had not been rendered so arduous by globalization.
Germany, which is thriving as other European countries struggle, may seem a well-fortified “villa in the jungle,” to use Ehud Barak’s phrase for Israel. But it is a beneficiary of its economic and demographic preponderance within Europe and its high-tech exports to China.
Whether CDU supporters like it not, these relations of interdependence with other countries, which are both lucrative and brittle, have also burdened Germany with several unshakable responsibilities.
Germany under Merkel may not exactly be “dozing on a volcano,” as Habermas fears. But Merkel’s victory does denote a strengthened mood of denial and a perilous absence of the vision thing among German leaders. For, as Habermas writes, “there are extraordinary situations in which cognitive sensitivity, imagination, courage and willingness to take responsibility of those in charge have an impact on the progression of things.”
Like many intellectuals, Habermas believes that only a democratized European Union can survive the cold wind of globalization, and that German political leaders are best equipped to initiate its evidently urgent political reform.
This sounds right when you look at the other candidates for European leadership. No one expects much of Francois Hollande, presently facing the lowest approval ratings for a French president since Francois Mitterrand in 1991, or, for that matter, David Cameron, who now has to fight, in addition to hardline Euroskeptics within his own Conservative Party, a challenger from the right, the stridently anti-Euro UK Independence Party.
But there is a less flattering way to look at Merkel’s success and likely agenda for her third term. It is possible that for all its messages of calm and assurance today, the Merkel rhombus may be a mere prelude to public handwringing.
An unavoidable conflict exists between capitalism and democracy as politicians who are committed to boosting corporate balance sheets struggle to mollify an electorate angered by precarious employment, stagnant wages and rampant inequality. One salve for public disgruntlement in Europe has been private debt and extravagant public spending. But this strategy — anointed by the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck in a best-selling book this summer as “buying time” — has proved untenable; its dangerous consequences have yet to be witnessed.
Despite the much-touted recovery of the eurozone, states and banks may yet default. Disaffection, already widespread, with the EU and its German overlords has already taken militant forms as the youthful and radical members of the new European underclass take to the streets. The prospect of endless deprivation has also spurred the growth of neo-fascist movements such as Greece’s Golden Dawn.
The pragmatic and cautious defender of Germany’s national interest in the age of globalization may yet instigate an aggressive new nationalism in Europe. It is also likely that as China comes to the end of its investment-led boom and faces a possible debt crisis, those luxuriating in the villa in the jungle will need a dose of their own bitter medicine of austerity.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.” E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.