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The wind is changing in Europe

by Bill Emmott on February 11, 2017

We have grown used to political earthquakes, as once inconceivable electoral outcomes turn into reality. Yet this year’s greatest political shock could turn out to be a positive one. It is time to think seriously about the possibility that Angela Merkel may be defeated in September and be replaced as Germany’s chancellor by Martin Schulz.

Since Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament, became leader of Merkel’s coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democratic Party, a little more than two weeks ago, the SDP has surged in the opinion polls, even in some polls overtaking Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union group.

Novelty is a powerful force in politics. So is being seen as an outsider. Of course, this momentum for Schulz may not be sustained over the seven months between now and the federal elections. But the possibility should be taken seriously because it fits in with major doubts and criticisms of Mrs Merkel being voiced privately not just by her opponents but her own supporters.

Since the election of Donald Trump, many commentators have described Angela Merkel as the last great hope for liberal, western values. Yet is she really such a figure? By the time of the German elections she will have been in office for nearly 12 years. That makes her hugely experienced and respected. But it also makes her stale. And it inevitably means she has made some big mistakes.

Her own supporters are beginning to think, and even to say, that she has stayed Chancellor for too long. From their point of view, she is unavoidably associated with two historic mistakes: her decision to allow Greece to remain a member of the euro; and her decision to open Germany’s doors to more than one million migrants, a decision that weakened European solidarity at a time when it desperately needed to be strengthened.

To others, she is associated with a third historic mistake: the decision to insist upon the 2012 fiscal austerity treaty for Eurozone members. That decision remains popular with her own supporters and many German voters, but it has damaged Germany’s relations with other Eurozone countries. Most critically for the election, it also opens up a space for a serious competitor such as Martin Schulz.

No one can accuse Schulz of being in any sense anti-European or even soft on EU issues. So he can run as being a strong defender of Europe while also offering alternative economic policies, and new thinking about the migrant crisis.

It is far too soon to make predictions. Even if they beat Merkel’s party, Schulz and the SDP might face difficulties forming a coalition government with the Green Party and the Left party. There are many uncertainties about the coming seven months, to say the least.

But let us think of the potential, in any case. A few months ago, the brightest outlook from a pro-Europe point of view this year was the idea of France being led by a President Francois Fillon and a Germany led by a re-elected Angela Merkel succeeding in reviving the Franco-German “engine” of the EU. Yet this prospect, bright as it may have seemed, came with some doubts, over Merkel’s continued energy after 12 years in office and over differences between Merkel and Fillon over Russia.

Now, the brightest outlook is a much sunnier, more invigorating one: of France electing the centrist independent Emmanuel Macron and of Germany changing chancellor to Martin Schulz. Such a combination would be fiercely pro-European. It would combine a liberalizing, reforming zeal with a progressive, centre-left instinct, one likely to be more favourable to economic growth. And it would be fresh and well able to stand tall to represent Europe in any confrontations with either Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin.

Yes, a President Le Pen would change everything. But let us think more positively. Politics in all European countries is in turmoil. The times, as the Nobel-prize-winning Bob Dylan told us many years ago, are a-changing. Yet that change need not only be negative. The possibility of positive change is also rising.

By Bill Emmott

This article first appeared in La Stampa Feb 9 2017

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