It’s been a tough era for Davos Man, the personification of the great and the good who meet in the World Economic Forum in that Swiss ski resort every January. The rebukes just keep coming: the Euro crisis, Brexit, Trump, and now, and once again unexpectedly, Angela Merkel’s failure to form a German government.
For a dozen years, European elites who have recoiled from former President George W. Bush and swooned over former President Barack Obama have regarded Merkel as a rock-solid firmament of good sense. Her considerable internal political skills, her seeming unflappability, her upholding of conventional wisdoms, both well- and ill-founded, have made her a favorite at Davos.
Merkel has been the pillar of the European Union and seems to have been the dominant force behind the multiple responses to each in a succession of euro crises. It helps, of course, that Germany has Europe’s largest economy, one mostly unscathed by the 2008 financial crisis — though that owes much to the Thatcherish labor law reforms of Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder.
By standard political science rules of thumb, Merkel and others in the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, should have been a big winner in the Sept. 24 elections. The national unemployment rate is 3.7 percent. Inflation, the bugaboo of Germans since the 1920s, is low. The Social Democrats’ leader is untested in national politics.
Yet the CDU and its Bavarian partner the Christian Social Union, or CSU, got only 33 percent of the vote — their lowest percentage since West Germany started voting in 1949. The Social Democratic Party for Germany, or SPD, arguably the world’s oldest social democratic party, plummeted to 21 percent. The two major parties thus barely topped 50 percent, compared to the high 60s in 2005-13 and 76 to 77 percent in 1992-2002.
This, like Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States, was a slap in the face of the political, media, and business establishment.
The reason is not hard to grasp: The establishment hasn’t been performing very well of late. You don’t have to be as harsh as former media baron and Franklin Roosevelt biographer Conrad Black, who writes, “The previous 20 years of government had been utterly and bipartisanly incompetent, in the White House and the Congress.” Or the New York Times’s sorta-conservative columnist David Brooks, who puts it more succinctly: “Our elites really do stink.”
You just have to look at what has been happening, in this case in Europe, and what Angela Merkel (“a skilled and unideological dealmaker,” says the Economist) has been doing, in following Davos theology on the European Union, climate change, and immigration.
First, Europe. The euro, the common currency imposed on most of the EU (Britain wisely stayed out) in 2002, has only divided the continent. And for the very reasons Margaret Thatcher set out in 1990: A supernational currency will not suit the needs of multiple countries with different economic cycles and economic cultures.
The solution of French President Emmanuel Macron and many Eurocrats is a continent-wide finance ministry. That’s a nonstarter now, given Merkel’s weakness, and probably always was. The avowed goal of the EU, “an ever closer union,” has come unglued.
Second, climate change and energy. After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011, Merkel unilaterally decided to shut down Germany’s nonpolluting nuclear plants and, in a country with unreliable sun and wind, rely on renewables. So Germany now imports American coal, has higher emissions, and hugely high electric rates.
Third, immigration. Europe has opened itself up to Muslim immigrants, has failed to assimilate them and suffers from increasing Muslim terrorism. Merkel upped the ante in September 2015 by inviting in more than 1 million unregistered “refugees,” supposedly from Syria but also from distant Mali and Bangladesh.
Prophecies that they would supply the skilled labor low-birth-rate Germany needs have proven laughable. Murder and sexual assaults, though covered up by government and press, have been dismayingly frequent.
These unforced blunders, in line with the Davos mindset, helped the free-market FDP to rise from 5 to 11 percent and the unsavorily nationalist Alternative for Germnay, or AfD party, from 5 to 13 percent. That left Merkel, with the SPD no longer willing to join it in a coalition, and understandably shunning the AfD and neo-Communist Linke party, trying to form a coalition with the FDP and Greens.
The FDP understandably balked at the Merkel/Green energy and immigration policies, leaving Merkel having to govern without a majority or face new elections. Merkel may be an admirable person, but Germans seem to have concluded that her Davos-praised policies “really do stink.”