Pity poor Angela! The rock is Greece and its economic woes. The hard place is North Rhine-Westphalia, where an extremely crucial election is due on May 9th — very soon but not soon enough! And Chancellor Merkel is caught directly in the middle!
Europe and the world have been waiting for Germany to commit itself to aiding the Greek economy before it slips into total bankruptcy — and perhaps chaos. It needs a big dose of financial support, and with its credit rating plummeting, it needs it fast. A big share of the promised credit must come from Germany, economically the strongest country in Europe and a wannabe leader on the continent and beyond. The original sum in discussion was 8 billion Euros, but it is now clear that this would only be a small down payment. Almost hourly, even that is getting more and more urgent. Every delay can unsettle the whole Euro zone, encompassing much of Europe and even affecting markets as distant as Hong Kong and Wall Street.
But Angela Merkel, despite years of heart-moving support for the European Union, of almost teary-eyed hymns to European harmony and solidarity, has thus far done nothing but make excuses and think up conditions for aid, none of them convincing. Her tactics became so transparent, malodorous, and disastrous that the top leaders of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Bank visited Berlin to appeal to Angela for approval. The economic calamity which has befallen Greece now threatens Portugal, Spain, maybe even Ireland and other countries, but still Merkel remains adamant.
The solution to this mystery requires neither Poirot nor Miss Marple. It is that election on May 9th. Most of the media, but especially the boulevard rag Bild, have been waging a merciless war of words against Greece. The main tenor was that Greeks were lazy, received much too high pensions much too soon, and Germany had better not throw its hard-earned, badly needed money to that useless, coddled bunch. Some politicians suggested that Greece should first sell a few islands — or even the Parthenon. Most Bild readers, not reputed as brilliant theoreticians, swallowed this chauvinism whole. Few of the media made clear that foreign banks, not least of all the Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, helped push the Greek government into the mess it is in, just like countless other victims of their conniving greed. Of course, the upper class of Greece will not have suffered much. But the media bashing was directed mostly at the working people, now fighting in the streets to maintain a halfway decent livelihood against growing odds. What Bild never says is that if the European Union, with the current right-wing German government in the lead, can force down working conditions and living standards in Greece, this can make it more attractive to runaway German companies. It can certainly lead to more unemployment and worse living standards all over Europe, including Germany. Which brings us to North Rhine-Westphalia.
The coming election will not only be crucial because this is the largest German state in population, with 18 million of Germany’s 82 million people. Once the main industrial region, with Ruhr Valley coal and steel and urban centers like Essen, Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Bonn, it is currently a rust belt, rivaled in economic troubles only by the five East German states. Its cities and towns are increasingly unable to maintain even basic public services.
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For decades it was a bastion of the Social Democrats, but in 2005, thanks to the abandonment by Gerhard Schroeder’s national government of most social policies, they were ousted by the Christian Democrats (CDU), Angela Merkel’s party, and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), the same duo which now rules nationally. But this team also failed to meet people’s needs. The CDU was caught up in too many scandals, while the Free Democrats kept losing ground, especially after their boss in Berlin, Foreign Minister Westerwelle, implied that workers on jobless insurance were often parasites; he used the term “Rome-like decadence” to describe some of their life styles.
The chances for a renewed coalition of the two right-wing parties do not look rosy. A loss would be painfully embarrassing; the same two parties now run the federal government in Berlin. Worse yet, in the Upper House, the Bundesrat, states are represented, not election districts, and more populous states have more seats than smaller ones. A loss in North Rhine-Westphalia would cost the government its majority and create hurdles too high for even the agile Merkel, who is facing increasing snapping at her heels within her own party.
The media have misrepresented the credit, implying it would be a multi-billion Euro gift to unworthy Greece (it would actually be a repayable credit at a high interest rate). But inflamed nationalist passions could mean the ruling parties losing even more votes than previously predicted. So Merkel, still hoping to beat the odds, dragged her feet and tried to wait with the money until May 9th.
The elections are crucial to all the parties. The Free Democrats, thanks to the eloquent persuasiveness and lofty promises of Westerwelle, won an unprecedented 14 percent of the vote last year; their hopes soared to the skies. But the hangover, also thanks to Westerwelle, has dropped it back down and a serious loss on May 9th would severely cut its newfound anti-social haughtiness. The Social Democrats, who suffered a crushing defeat in last year’s federal elections, dream of a comeback. Like their favorite partners the Greens, their demotion to opposition status inspired them to speak out once again from the left side of their mouth, hoping that voters will forget their sellout to the super wealthy when they held power. They skirt carefully around the Greek issue; it is safer to perch on the fence, mouth platitudes, and let government parties take the knocks.
What about The Left? For it, too, the vote is very crucial. If it wins 5 percent or more it will get seats in the legislature of Germany’s largest state, greatly expanding its influence in the west, with only three states to go. This could strengthen its self-assurance, at a time when leadership changes, inner problems, and quarrels have occupied too much of both time and energy. Its hopes and fears may also explain why it too has seemingly avoided much stress on the Greek question. Aside from calling for a hardly realistic moratorium on Greek debt to Germany, it, too, may have decided to let Angela face the music, especially since it can do little to affect such decisions.
If The Left does make it into the legislature (polls now give it just over the needed 5 percent), the existence of a fifth party can means reshuffling lots of cards. The CDU and the FDP will hardly have enough to keep their present majority. The Social Democrats and Greens would love to return to their old power-sharing combination, but 50 percent is no easy goal for them either. Joining with The Left would seem a natural solution, but the red-baiting of the right-wing parties caused the Social Democrats to tremble in advance before even the slightest toleration of those “wild communists.” Since the Greens reject joining either the Free Democrats or The Left, this could mean that the Greens join with the Christian Democrats. Such a step, already taken in the much smaller states of Hamburg and Saarland, would mean, for many members of this once leftish party, another move towards total sellout. Nasty decisions are in the offing. Will they go along?
The old Rhine River faces days of great suspense. It is sad that those who are at the very bottom will most likely be living far away, at the sun-baked Mediterranean shores of in Greece. To their credit, they have been fighting back, hard!
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).