Germany does not necessarily speak for Europe, though at this 2017 juncture that may very well be true. Nor too does West Europe speak for Germany. That may also be presently true. After Angela Merkel's record-tying fourth consecutive election victory as German chancellor in September 2017, the Europe-Germany identity might become more eye-raising for all the wrong reasons: global consequences can be enormous and game-changing if populism drives that synchronicity; but if it is just a passing development, an excruciatingly long wait may follow until the dust settles. With the plummeting fortunes of the Christian Democratic Party (CDP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) reaching the lowest possible popularity level, the argument that improvements can only be inevitable may become a bridge too far to reach. Whichever way we look at the puzzle, optimism is not the appropriate or reflective adjective of the occasion, but the one as sorely needed now as between 1924 and 1933.
Were it not for Merkel, it could have been worse. Her honest, sedate, and towering personality and presence might be saving Germany for now, but if the populist option prevails, this will not be enough to prevent Germany from returning to where it was a hundred-odd years ago, when the Munich beer-putsch elevated an unknown misfit by the name of Adolf Hitler to power. If the other option of the established parties recovering from their nadir turns true, then Merkel's name might rank alongside the icons in the German political pantheon, like the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who founded the German state in 1871, or Konrad Adenauer, who converted a disgraced Nazi society/state into a progressive economic giant in the 1950s.
Her 'crime', at least why the CDP, with her in command, was punished in the election: to let in almost a million Syrian refugees: Time called her 'person of the year' in 2015, and 'Chancellor of the free world', as her country absorbed almost two-thirds of all refugees seeking asylum across Europe. Though post-World War II Germans have not, by and large, been of the jingoistic type, automatically pulling the shutters on foreigners, particularly refugees, the current climate raises two formidable challenges: 1) Islamic terrorism and 2) economic misalignments.
Though Germany has not faced any, at least significant, Islamic terrorist incidents, spillovers from Europe's multiple outbursts have, fortunately, been curbed thus far with an ever more resoundingly and respectably resolute response. Yet, forces waiting to exploit this situation across Europe now feel more adrenalised with their German counterparts stridently on board, paving a possible pathway straight to that populist iceberg conclusion. Neither Merkel nor any other well-meaning European can control this directly; terrorists feed on it. Having weathered many policy responses, concerned Germans may just have given up, with six million of them exploring the Alternative for Germany (AfD) through their electoral votes. Born in 2013 out of opposition to the Greek bailout (Grexit), that too amid an economy collapsing from a peak of 4.0 per cent growth in 2011-12 towards zero-growth, the AfD Bundestag tally of 94 out of 709 seats, made it the third largest electoral party, and possibly a future maker-or-breaker force.
The second springboard has less to do with German economic competitiveness than demographic dynamics. German economic competitiveness is, and has been, the continent's powerhouse, at times sizzling at dizzying heights, at others compressed into dysfunction by too many burdens, like reunification, European Union expansion, the Great Recession, Grexit, and now sheltering Syrian refugees. Germany, nevertheless, remains one of the world's top exporting countries. Therein lies a 'saving grace' ingredient: having solid foreign clients must help override introversive domestic tendencies. Germany has managed this admirably thus far, suggesting there is no reason to expect game-changers here.
A greater problem than keeping the economic machine well-oiled against global competition may be the demographic ghost of a declining birth-rate (and thereby, the population): this invites fears of Germany's composition changing, which some (not all) AfD leaders have bluntly worried about. Workforce gaps have routinely been filled through 'guest' foreign workers from the 1950s until (a) the cumulative effects of 'guest' workers staying for the long-haul became heavy; (b) Islamic concerns beginning to spiral; and (c) Syrian refugees surging into the country over the last two-odd years. Previously, jobs available to them were those Germans would not do; today, they also fill in for worker-shortages at all levels, not for reasons of better skills, but owing to a demographically shrinking population. With a population-growth rate of 1.2 per cent, which may still be one of Europe's higher rates, and a diminishing population for about 10 years (from 2006), there are obvious reasons for concern.
Though a lot is being done to boost the German birth-rate, particularly through lucrative maternity/paternity leaves and adjustable work-hours, the long-term pay-off time-span collides with short-term exigencies. Unless Merkel's new government can tackle this crisis as credibly as she has dealt with others, it could grow into the very nightmare her party, Germany, and she herself seeks to avoid. Her sagacious decision to let sifted Syrian refugees in sought to partly soften this job-market crunch.
That risky decision also sought, in part, to set the kind of example expected of a flourishing country against such a predicament, and, in part, out of a humanitarian concern that even impoverished countries like Bangladesh is adopting towards Rohingya refugees today. Whereas leaders can afford to act bold, citizens lack that capacity. Through a tyranny of circumstances, Germany's illustrious chancellor stands at one of the country's most bitter crossroads.
While the German composition concern rightly targets the 'foreign' front, to be fair, there is a strong domestic counterpart too. Disunited from World War II until 1989, Germany became the homeland of two different German groups: the progressive 'western' against the relatively more deprived, and therefore, envious, 'eastern'. With her Hamburg birth, 'eastern' upbringing, and 'a quarter Polish' trait, Merkel epitomies the national unity the country badly seeks and the continental-mindedness West Europeans must have to survive global competition. Since the populist fulcrum has been shifting 'west' from the 'east', collecting disillusioned leftist voters along the way, apparently not enough has trickled down to loosen the 'east's' inferior identity complex.
A similar chasm riddles the globe: in some cases, traditional identities clash with cosmopolitan neo-liberal forces; in others, the obvious loss of economic clout, as in Donald Trump's United States, only brews a tit-for-tat mindset. The key difference between them might lie in another ideology than religion: since authoritarian rule has never fully vanished from many countries outside West Europe, sliding in and out of it is all too common; but for West Europeans (or North Atlantic seaboard countries) drifting in that direction becomes a hard swallow given the 1930s and 1940s memories.
One must salute Angela Merkel for holding the tide for so long; and support her efforts to win back her people. As her unflappable character meets its severest test, Europeans and Germans might keep in mind her shoulders may be all there is upon which western civilisation can rest securely: no other leader is visible on the distant horizon. After her, the tides being so relentless, the deluge could break the gates: of the German economic 'miracle', European unity, and the democratic beacon the rest of the world silently emulates.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.