Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Merkel’

Pope Francis: the nearest we have to a world statesman?

Pope Francis is pulling in the crowds on his tour of Latin America.

At his first stop in Ecuador, 800,000 people are estimated to have turned out for mass in the city of Guayaquil. Not bad for a country of only 16 million people.

Francis’s conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, were also capable of attracting large numbers of the faithful on their international trips, but the messages they delivered to their followers were somewhat different.

Where they were conservatives who took a hard-line on issues such as divorce and homosexuality, Francis seems intent on reaching out to Catholics who have become disillusioned with the Church’s rejection of contemporary social mores.

But the current Pope goes one step further, appealing to non-Catholics as well with his calls for action on issues of global importance, like climate change and what – on his recent visit to Bosnia – he called an atmosphere of war across the world which is shattering countless lives.

Francis lives modestly – in an overt kind of way – and has also identified himself with opponents of what he calls unbridled capitalism and inequality and had himself photographed for the International Labour Organisation’s campaign against child labour.

While continuing to oppose gay marriage, he also attracted attention when he indicated a more tolerant attitude to homosexuality when he told journalists: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

The Argentine pontiff has shown a gift for communication and memorable quotes, and with more than 12 million followers on Twitter he reaches the parts previous Popes couldn’t reach.

His sense of humour and penchant for self-deprecation was immediately apparent the night of his election when he toasted his fellow cardinals with “May God forgive you for what you’ve done”.

But he uses all this to serious ends and is provoking global discussion on things that matter, something that is attracting serious admiration from people, particularly progressives, who may well have run a mile the Catholic Church in the past.

Clearly, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a sharp mind and is talking about issues close to many hearts. He also has charisma.

But I think Pope Francis also stands out because other world leaders have been found wanting.

Think of the alternatives.

President Obama was elected 7 years ago promising change and the audacity of hope, but has singularly failed to meet the expectations he raised. From the absurdly premature Nobel Peace Prize he got – seemingly for simply not being George W Bush – and the famous Cairo speech where he called for a new start with the world’s Muslims, it has been pretty much downhill. His appeal especially eroded by his preference for using drones to kill people in other countries he identifies as America’s enemies – as well as uncounted others who just happen to be nearby – and the world-wide, industrial-scale spying by US intelligence agency, the NSA, revealed by Edward Snowden.

Focussed as he seems to be on Russia’s narrow interests and lacking much in the way of soft power skills, President Putin attracts little admiration, if some grudging respect.

China’s President, Xi Jinping, has emerged as his country’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, but given his focus on national economic development and the re-assertion of Chinese influence, he is yet to show he has a message with global appeal.

Europe’s most powerful leader, Chancellor Merkel, may have a reassuring effect on German voters who have dubbed her Mutti (Mummy), but the Greek crisis has cruelly exposed her limitations as more than a national leader – and none of her European counterparts shows any more knack for statesmanship.

Then there’s the UN Secretary General who’s meant partly to embody the world’s conscience. Ban Ki-moon has been game for a bit of self-deprecation of his own – performing Gangnam style with his compatriot Psy and making a spoof film on the NSA revelations for the UN correspondents dinner – but his civil servant’s demeanour fails to inspire. How many remember Ban made climate change his signature issue in his first term?

If Pope Francis continues to sound relevant to Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and is able to see off the still powerful conservative forces in the Church before he steps down or dies – a big if as he is 78 after all – then he could act as a catalyst for social change and help the World find a way to deal with the challenges it faces from global warming to growing inequality.

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Europe: more than fraying at the edges

The EU is teetering on the brink of Grexit as the two sides continue to play a momentous game of chicken.

On Sunday, Greeks will be voting in their referendum on whether or not to accept the conditions the EU and IMF have put on giving the country another bailout – and the polls are so finely balanced it’s too close to call.

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has said no one should tell the Greeks how to vote, but then went on to make clear a “no” means Greece leaving the Euro, so no pressure there then.

Greece’s anti-austerity government on the other hand is pushing for that “no” arguing it will strengthen their negotiating hand. Prime Minister Tsipras seems to be banking on fear of the unpredictable effects of Grexit to force the rest of the Eurozone back to the table.

There has been much talk of Europe fraying at the edges if Greece is forced out of the Euro with some even suggesting Athens will be end up leaving the EU altogether.

But that risks understating the depth of the crisis facing the Union.

What is happening with Greece is a symptom of something that’s eating away at the EU’s very foundations and the glue that binds the 28 nations together is in danger of dissolving.

You have to go back and ask yourself why Europeans created their unique organisation in the first place.

Before 1945, the people of the continent had spent centuries killing each other in the name of king, then country and – in some cases – both and that’s not to mention the wars of religion.

After the devastation and slaughter of World War Two, European leaders – especially in France and Germany – finally woke up to the fact that there must be a better of doing things and started building what has now become the European Union by creating a common market for coal and steel which quickly became the European Economic Community.

In so doing they were appealing to enlightened economic self-interest, but behind the project there was a more altruistic impulse too – to end the threat of war between Europeans by appealing to a sense of solidarity. The idea that what Europeans have in common is much more important than what divides them.

And like Araldite, the glue holding the EU together needs two elements to make a strong bond – that combination of enlightened self-interest and solidarity.

It’s this that has brought many benefits like the ability to live and work anywhere in the EU, something I took advantage of in the early 80s when I left recession-hit Britain to work in Italy – how things have changed, as you see when ordering your cappuccino or latte in a London coffee bar.

But the Europe-wide economic crisis of recent years has chipped away at the sense of solidarity underpinning the EU.

The Greek debt saga has both exposed and fuelled this.

Basically, the German government is unwilling to ask its taxpayers to write off the loans they’ve made to Greece to keep it afloat while it tries to find a way to pay its debts, a form of solidarity that’s called fiscal transfer in economist-speak.

And you can understand why Germans wouldn’t want to do this. After all, Greece has been living beyond its means for years and when borrowing became easier after it joined the Euro because of lower interest rates, Athens continued splurging.

On the other hand, German and other banks were happy to lend to Greece knowing it had a dodgy credit history. This is a country that’s struggled to remain solvent ever since independence in 1832.

It’s also important to point out that the Greek bailout in 2010 was also a bail out for those banks as EU governments, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund basically took on the Greek debt.

But this is a complex argument the German government for one is unwilling to make to its people, so they haven’t and instead blamed it all on profligate Greeks. So it’s not just the usual suspects of the nationalist and populist right like UKIP and Front National who are responsible.

Yet EU solidarity is not just being undermined by the Greek debt crisis

The influx of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa is also playing its part.

They are making for the nearest EU countries, mainly Italy and – by unfortunate coincidence – Greece, and they are struggling to cope with the numbers. The European Commission came up with a plan for all 28 countries to relieve the burden on Rome and Athens. After acrimonious talks, where calls for solidarity and responsibility were bandied about, most countries agreed to take a share of asylum-seekers, but some, including Britain, Denmark and Hungary, refused to play ball.

According to some in the room, Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi didn’t mince his words exclaiming at one point: “If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it. Either there is solidarity, or you don’t waste our time”.

Which kind of sums it up.

If Europeans don’t rediscover the balance between self-interest and solidarity soon, the EU faces an existential threat at its core, which will make external challenges like a resurgent Russia and spill over from chaos in the Arab world look like local difficulties.

 

Germany: risking its post WW2 modest image for little gain

When it came to foreign policy, the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, advised his countrymen to “keep a low profile and achieve something” by which he meant concentrate on the economy and avoid getting involved in disputes.

This week has raised the question – should Germany’s leaders heed Deng’s advice?

On Monday, Chancellor Merkel was in Japan and chose to issue her hosts some of her own advice in dealing with the legacy of Tokyo’s conduct in World War 2 which is still souring relations with its neighbours, especially China and South Korea.

Ms Merkel’s speech reminded us how much Germans pride themselves on coming to terms with the Nazis’ wartime record and reconciling with their neighbours.

As speculation grows that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may use the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to water down previous Japanese apologies to its neighbours, Ms Merkel took it upon herself to urge the Japanese to follow Germany’s example.

Her hosts were polite and did not give away how they felt about Chancellor Merkel’s comments, but shortly after her speech events back home suggest it may have been wiser to avoid the risk of hubris and keep out of the debate about Japan’s wartime past.

On Wednesday, the very public row between Berlin and Athens over debt escalated with a reminder that perhaps Germany’s reconciliation with the victims of Nazi aggression has not been as successful as it thinks.

The new Greek government is trying to renegotiate the terms of its debt to the rest of the EU and IMF and wants to end the 2010 bailout – largely funded by Berlin – negotiated by its predecessor during the Eurocrisis which mandates economic austerity that Athens says kills any chance for growth.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has been using insultingly undiplomatic language to tell his Greek counterpart – with an eye to his own taxpayers – that Berlin has been generous enough already and will not countenance further debt forgiveness.

The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, responded – also with an eye to his political supporters – by reviving claims that Berlin pay reparations for Germany’s harsh wartime occupation.

But instead of trying to emolliate Athens, as German governments of the past might have, the response of Chancellor Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, was dismissive “the question of reparations and compensation is legally and politically closed”.

It is no secret to anyone in Europe that the Eurocrisis means Germany is now the continent’s undisputed political as well as economic leader. Berlin’s traditional policy of hiding its economic strength by letting France take the political lead is no longer viable given current French weakness.

It is also obvious when talking privately to Germans born since 1945 that they are increasingly tired of being reminded of what their grandparents’ generation did and feel others use the Nazi past to justify freeloading on their generosity.

But Germany is now risking undermining its newfound leadership by appearing arrogant and overplaying its hand.

It is not just the Greeks who are beginning to chafe at Berlin’s attitude. There is growing anti-German sentiment in Italy too. Outside the EU, Germany has taken the lead role in pressurising Serbia to accept the secession of Kosovo reviving many Serbs’ historical distrust and resentment of Berlin’s wartime record.

The EU works by consensus and goodwill to build common interests and Germany has prospered since 1945 by pooling sovereignty with its former enemies and appearing unthreatening.

But circumstances change and now demand Berlin take a more active leadership role in Europe because it is the only country economically strong enough to bail out its partners and save the Euro.

However, it is one thing to lead by force majeure and quite another to take people with you.

Germany and the rest of EU face tough enough challenges trying to revive economic growth and ensure the Euro has a future.

If Berlin abandons the modesty that has reassured the rest of the world it no longer harbours the desire to dominate and awakens the ghosts of the past by lecuring others and deliberately reminding its neighbours just how powerful it is, it will make the job of leadership even harder and risk undermining its newfound role before it takes root.

 

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