Ukraine crisis: Merkel must keep up tireless work rate or risk losing goal of a 'united Europe'

Analysis

As if her stock was not already high enough, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic popularity soared to near euphoric levels in Germany yesterday after her apparent success in brokering a Ukraine ceasefire, and signs that she is poised for a compromise with the Greek government over its debt problems.

The press marvelled at the 60-year-old Chancellor’s stamina after a gruelling week of transatlantic shuttle diplomacy, capped on Wednesday by a 17-hour overnight negotiating session in Minsk and followed immediately by a European Union summit in Brussels.

“Man oh man,” exclaimed the populist Bild newspaper. “The Chancellor is fighting as never before – these have been the toughest 30 hours of her life,” Hamburg’s Abendblatt newspaper declared: “She has been the voice of common sense in madness; she acted while others just talked.”

Ms Merkel was also warmly praised by German MPs from all parties, including the usually deeply antagonistic Left Party. Its MPs congratulated her for taking the lead for Europe over Ukraine and “not leaving the United States to deal with it”.

 

The fact that the French President François Hollande appeared very much in tow during their joint Ukraine mission raised her standing even more.

The German leader was already one of her country’s most popular post-war leaders, with a survey late last year finding more than 60 per cent of voters, including those who backed other parties, thought she did an excellent job.

Her popularity has more to do with her abilities as a leader who can “fix it” for Germany in Europe and on the world stage than her domestic political performance. She is well-used to marathon diplomacy and compares herself to a “camel” going without water in her ability to keep negotiating without sleep.

Ms Merkel catches up by escaping to the country cottage she shares with her husband near the east German town of Templin, where she was brought up.

With German exports at record levels, unemployment at its lowest for 25 years and Ms Merkel’s authority in Europe unquestioned, her supporters like to claim that she not only reigns supreme at home but is easily the most powerful leader on the continent. But her new-found leadership role has been won more by default than design.

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Angela Merkel and François Hollande emerge from their marathon talks in Minsk yesterday (Sergei Grits/AP)

Josef Janning, of the European Council of Foreign Relations, says her leading role in such issues as the Ukraine ceasefire is a direct consequence of Washington’s “leadership restraint”. “Germany has risen in importance because of a vacuum of leadership and by circumstances, rather than by its own doing,” he maintains.

After almost 10 unbroken years at the helm of her nation, Ms Merkel may have reached her zenith as leader. But paradoxically, she is also closer than ever to the unravelling of the objective of a “United Europe” she inherited from Chancellor Helmut Kohl, her mentor and predecessor.

First, it is far too early to talk about the success of the Minsk ceasefire agreement: new deaths were already being reported in eastern Ukraine as the ink was still drying on the accord. Right now, the possibility of a full-blown war on the edge of the European Union remains very much alive, despite Ms Merkel’s almost weekly telephone calls to President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Kohl’s maxim that German and European unity are two sides of the same coin – that coin being the euro – has also backfired for Ms Merkel. The single currency was meant to ensure that Germany would never again seek political domination in Europe. But to millions of Greek voters it has put Germany’s fiscal domination of Europe beyond doubt.

“Merkel get out” was one of the slogans displayed in Athens last month in the wake of Syriza’s election victory – a result seen in Berlin as a disaster for Germany’s European fiscal policies. Ms Merkel now finds herself playing an unwelcome debt write-off poker game with the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. Greece is threatening, if Europe does not deliver a debt write-off, to turn for help to Russia or China. If she does not compromise on the principles that have been the foundation of German economic power, the possibility looms of Greece becoming a Trojan horse for Russia in Europe – as does the risk of its exit from the euro. Either outcome would be a devastating political blow for Europe’s most powerful leader.

Deal or no deal: Tsipras talks tough

After his first Brussels summit with fellow EU leaders, there was plenty of bombast from Greece’s new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, who said Greece “would not be blackmailed”. But yesterday morning, it was back to trying to hammer out a workable compromise with the country’s creditors.

Mr Tsipras remained in Brussels for talks with the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission to lay the groundwork for a meeting on Monday of the 19 eurozone finance ministers.

While Mr Tsipras was quite upbeat yesterday, the Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who will chair Monday’s meeting, was not hopeful of a swift agreement. “I’m really still very pessimistic about that,” he said.

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