Germans favor 'Mommy' Merkel as crisis-battered Europe faces vote

Marc Young

BERLIN — Many Germans believe Angela Merkel deserves to be re-elected for shielding them from economic crisis. But for millions of Greeks, Spaniards, Irish and other Europeans, Merkel is the crisis.

Poised to win a third term on Sunday, Germany’s chancellor remains immensely popular at home. But elsewhere in Europe, Merkel has become synonymous with the draconian austerity measures she has insisted are necessary to solving Europe’s festering sovereign debt problems.

“Many Spanish are really feeling the cuts. We’re having German policies forced upon us,” Daniel Correa, a 33-year-old Madrid resident, told Yahoo News. “Spain’s economy is totally stagnant. And austerity won’t get it going again.”

Normally, Correa would have to stand by and watch as German voters go to the polls Sept. 22 to elect a new parliament. But the crisis has inspired him to take part in an unusual project encouraging Germans to give their vote to citizens of particularly hard hit member states of the European Union.

“We provide the platform to match Germans with people wanting a say in the election,” said Sonja Wyrsch, a Berlin-based political activist with the group Egality Now. “We’re hoping to spark discussion about how decisions made in Germany impact other countries.”

Modeled on a past effort to get Israelis to pledge their votes to Palestinians, the vote-sharing initiative is unlikely to change the outcome of the German election. But it highlights how Europe’s ongoing economic woes are pushing the 17 nations belonging to the eurozone closer together — while at the same time threatening to tear their troubled currency union apart.

Germany, an economic powerhouse, has navigated the crisis sparked by the 2008 global financial meltdown remarkably unscathed. But countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland — and to a lesser degree even EU heavyweights Italy and France — have suffered deep economic hardship and high unemployment. The number of out-of-work young people in Greece and Spain recently hit a staggering 63 and 56 percent, respectively, but in Germany it was a mere 7.7 percent.

“The policies of the German government directly affect the Spanish people, but we don’t have a say,” Correa said. “The German chancellor is doing well for the interests of her own country. But the reality is bigger. We expect a little bit more solidarity between European countries.”

Though Merkel will not get Correa’s borrowed vote on Sunday, there’s no denying the fact that her center-right coalition has supported bailouts of several EU members at considerable cost to German taxpayers. And the chancellor, who has picked up the nickname “Mutti” (German for mommy) after eight years in power, has repeatedly stated she will do whatever necessary to preserve the euro.

“Europe is important for us,” said Merkel, known for her reserved style, at a campaign rally this week. “In the long run, we will only be successful when other countries are also successful.”

But it’s her prescribed remedy of making struggling economies more “German” by slashing government spending while increasing competitiveness that truly rankles many Europeans.

“Merkel has been criticized for solely pursuing austerity policies — in effect, cutting Greece and other southern European nations into oblivion,” Sabine von Oppeln, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, told Yahoo News.

Helming the European Union’s largest country and leading economy has made Merkel the de facto leader of a vast bloc stretching from the Arctic tundra of Finland to the Atlantic shores of Portugal. But it’s a responsibility the cautious 59-year-old trained physicist has neither sought out nor embraced, leaving some to lament a leadership vacuum in troubled times.

Peer Steinbrück, Merkel’s main challenger, has accused her of lacking the political vision to solve Europe’s ills. But despite an energetic televised debate performance earlier this month, his campaign has been extremely gaffe prone, and his center-left Social Democratic Party trails far behind Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union in polls.

Von Oppeln said the most likely election outcome — a return to the awkward right-left coalition of Merkel’s conservatives with the Social Democrats seen during her first term — would change Germany’s European policy little.

“We might see a bit more emphasis on stimulating growth after the election, but Merkel hasn’t really had a clear set of policies; she’s waffled, which is typical for her,” von Oppeln said.

However, one unpredictable factor could be whether a new euro-skeptical party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), manages to win seats in parliament on Sunday.

Although many economists agree that Germany’s export-led economy has benefited handsomely from joining the euro, AfD wants to ditch Europe’s single currency — and the financial commitments to more profligate EU countries it brings.

That could force Merkel to stick to her strict refusal to mutualize European debt, which is unpopular in Germany but frequently mentioned as a key step to resolving the eurozone crisis.

Or the chancellor might have to do more to convince Germans why they should continue to help their neighbors. She appeared to be getting a head start at just that during a televised election question and answer session on Monday.

“I’m European with all my heart,” she said with uncharacteristic passion. “Sometimes politics is about reaching people’s hearts.”