Something very strange has happened to the political map of Europe. A vast hole has opened up, bounded by Denmark to the north, Poland and the Czech Republic to the east, France, Switzerland and Austria to the south and the Benelux countries to the west – a hole the shape and size of Germany.
It is not six months since Angela Merkel led her centre-right CDU to victory in her country's general election, amid widespread lamentation that Germany's gain was Europe's loss. By continuing as Chancellor, she was now out of the running to be the new-style European president, a job for which she had seemed the ideal candidate in every way. The one consolation was that the reforms enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty would have time to settle down before Merkel, her stature enhanced further, might be free to lead the EU to greater things.
This might still happen. Merkel's personal history as an East German research scientist who came late to politics and chose the centre-right rather than the left remains as appealing as ever it was. But the first months of her second term as Chancellor have not been kind either to her or to Germany. When she popped up at an international women leaders' event last weekend, her appearance not only pointed up her recent invisibility – at least outside Germany – but prompted a tinge of regret that she might already be relegating herself to old-fashioned gender politics rather than taking her place in the global top flight where she belonged.
In one way, her half-year horribilis provides a glaring example of the need to be careful what you wish for. Merkel's victory in September was hard won. It was not sweeping enough for her to form a government without a partner, but she achieved the coalition she had campaigned for, with the free-market FDP. Which is where at least some of her problems began.
Although the FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle, had held that position for eight years, he had no experience of national government, and his party had been out of power for more than a decade. That the FDP's electoral showing was stronger than had been forecast made for the worst of several worlds. An assured, but in many ways inexperienced party leader, with his expectations boosted by his party's gains, Westerwelle pushed for a better deal – more of his people in government and more of his policies – than Merkel might otherwise have entertained.
Add to that the sharp change in the national mood since the FDP last shared power, and popular disenchantment with the out-and-out free market as a result of the economic crisis, and the FDP comes to look almost the least suitable partner for the CDU just now.
Merkel might also have banked on a better personal relationship with Westerwelle than she has so far managed to forge. In an ideal world, his flair for communication and flamboyance as Germany's most prominent gay politician would have complemented her common sense and low-key moderation. Instead, his incautious self-promotion seems already to have become a liability. Last week, a Chancellor renowned for keeping her cool showed her irritation after Westerwelle publicly criticised her emphasis on the social safety net. The rumour mill even has it that Merkel is "flirting" with the Greens. And that idea may be less fanciful than it might sound.
As a past environment minister, Merkel has always had a strong green streak, and improbable coalitions along similar lines function perfectly well at local level in Germany. Perhaps Merkel – as a former East German – misjudged her own appetite for the free market. Or is it rather a matter of political instinct: her sense that the FDP's low-tax, tough-love priorities do not suit these austere times?
Either way, it is by no means clear, after almost half a year, that the coalition Merkel campaigned for has turned out to her liking. Indeed, she could be forgiven for looking back to her former centre-left partners in the SPD, in particular the stolid Franz-Walter Steinmeier, with some wistfulness.
It is, of course, early days. But the air of solidity, modest expectations and give-and-take – the combination that made Merkel so popular in her first term – seems to have fled the German government just when it is needed most. The last coalition was widely seen as competent and effective, which is also why Germany's international stature rose. It now looks weak and divided, as well as introverted. And its impact abroad has shrunk accordingly.
There is an element of bad luck here. The international gauge of competence in the latter part of Ms Merkel's first term was how a country responded to the global economic crisis, where Germany's domestic good, if conservative, management served it well. The global crisis has now come home to the euro-zone, where the role of Germany, as the biggest and strongest economy, is seen by everyone else as central. But it is not seen so by Germany, which would prefer to operate as just one member of a collective. Being seen to bail out an improvident Greece would go down extremely badly with German voters, while its reluctance to do so infuriates Greece – as pointed remarks about war debts show all too clearly. No wonder Germany wants to stay in the shadows.
Something similar applies to the other major international issue facing Germany: Afghanistan. The Merkel government's already modest contribution to this unpopular war was thrown into disarray when Germany's commander in the field admitted calling down a US air strike, which had killed dozens of civilians, in error. The fall-out tainted the start of Merkel's second term, and damaged the new defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was supposed to be her second-term "star". On Afghanistan, as on bail-outs for the euro-zone, Germany's domestic mood and international expectations conflict.
Merkel is stymied in part by the success of her first term. But it is hard to see how, unless she stamps her authority more forcefully on her coalition, she can soon recover the gloss of those days. This time last year, Germany's steadiness kept the EU together and hinted at what more it might achieve. The Lisbon Treaty may now be in force, but without Germany's positive presence, Europe has a vacuum at its heart.Reuse content