Opinion Op-Ed

The EU tortoise makes a move

So the German people have spoken, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reelected. That means the European Union will continue to be a tortoise. Next May, following the European Parliament elections, we will discover just how slow and unhappy a creature it is. Then, across the next decade, a larger, Aesopian question will be posed: Can the European tortoise outrun the American eagle and the Chinese dragon? Or can it at least keep pace with them?

Resounding though Mutti ("Mom") Merkel's election victory was, Germany's new government still has to be formed. That traditionally happens at the speed, and with all the grace, of tortoises mating. Assuming the result is a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats, there should be a small but desirable adjustment in Germany's policy toward the Eurozone.

On Monday, Merkel suggested that there would be no change in her approach to a Southern Europe traumatized by debt, austerity and depression (economic and psychological ). Referring to the impressive way in which Germany managed its labor costs and restored its competitiveness, she said, "What we have done, everyone else can do."

The Social Democrats understand a little better, or perhaps just express more frankly, that the economics of Eurozone recovery are not that simple. Some debt burdens are just unsustainable. Improved supply also requires demand. But because the Social Democrats will be the junior partner in this coalition (if that is what emerges), and because most German voters don't want to pay another cent for allegedly feckless southerners, those desirable Eurozone policy adjustments will be modest.

At best, the soft underbelly of the European tortoise — debt- and depression-ridden Southern Europe — will continue to bleed.

In the German election, the political center held. In the 28-country elections to the European Parliament next May, that is less likely. Protest parties such as Greece's fascist Golden Dawn, Britain's UK Independence Party, the partly post-communist left in Germany and Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands might fill those parliamentary seats in Brussels. If this happens, the European Parliament will become a glass house full of people throwing stones. Yet that fragmentation may also compel the mainstream conservative, liberal and socialist parties to work more closely together, thus producing a kind of implicit grand coalition in Brussels as well.

At the same time, Merkel will be even more inclined to run the European show by pragmatic inter-governmental deal-making, whether in the soon-to-be 18-state Eurozone or the 28-state European Union. Merkel's problem is that she does not have a strategic partner in either of the other two leading powers of the EU.

France's Francois Hollande is the Little President Who Would, but his country is weakened by domestic economic problems and slowness to reform. Britain's David Cameron, with a stable coalition government and a slowly recovering economy, could in theory be that partner. In practice, his euro-skeptic Conservative Party and his own miscalculations have led him, foolishly, to attempt a "renegotiation" of the terms of Britain's membership in the EU. In short, Britain could, but won't; France would, but can't. That leaves Merkel as Europe's single Mutti.

So there you have the EU for the foreseeable future: a giant, weary, bleeding tortoise, with Chancellor Merkel trying to steer it across stony ground. Yet it's worth taking a look at the competition — the American eagle and the Chinese dragon. After all, in Aesop's fable, it was as much the hare that lost as it was the tortoise that won.

Here in America, my television screen is filled with a partisan style of politics that is the opposite of Germany's centrist, coalition-building democracy. While Berlin's Christian Democrats and Social Democrats negotiate their incremental differences, Washington is engulfed in shrieking brinkmanship, with Republicans threatening to not lift the country's debt ceiling and even to shut down the government unless that ghastly European-style Obamacare can be brought down. Although the American private sector is recovering some of its legendary dynamism, the U.S. still faces deep problems of imperial and welfare overstretch, and neglected infrastructure.

And rising China? President Xi Jinping's failure to show any signs of political reform makes a deeper crisis in that country ever more probable. The Financial Times' Jamil Anderlini reports a professor at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party assessing the future this way: "Influential party members ... were asking us how long we think the party will be in charge and what we have planned when it collapses. To be honest, this is a question that everyone in China is asking, but I'm afraid it's very difficult to answer."

In short, the world's three giant economies all have substantial political problems, of strikingly different kinds. Europe's Merkelian tortoise will not gather speed any time soon, but nor is it likely to take a big fall. Can we say the same of the eagle and the dragon?

Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing writer to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and professor of European studies at Oxford University.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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