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All set for another term

Updated August 31, 2013

IN case you haven’t heard: Germany goes to the polls on Sept 22 — and if European newspapers are to be believed, the future of the entire European Union and its 550 million citizens depends on it.

That is an exaggeration — but only just. The 28-member EU is about more than just Germany. And although she may be widely perceived as the bloc’s de facto leader, Angela Merkel is ‘only’ the German chancellor. She is not — yet anyway — the president of the EU.

But Merkel is undisputedly in the EU’s driving seat. She is centre stage at EU meetings and the star in the constellation of other, rather lacklustre, EU leaders.

When Merkel talks, she is listened to not only in Germany but across the Union. And when Germany sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold. Or worse.

The EU’s destiny has always been tied to that of its largest, most powerful and most economically dynamic member state. Germany’s role as the leader of the bloc has become even more obvious over the last five years marked by the eurozone crisis.

So undoubtedly the upcoming German polls are vitally important for Europe and Europeans.

Germany is headline news across the bloc, the topic of policy conversations and on the cocktail circuit.

Small wonder then that as EU leaders and policymakers come back from the August summer break, their minds are on two issues: Syria and Germany.

In fact, the reality is that most EU leaders have been fretting more about Germany than the Middle East — and many have even allowed their concerns over Germany to cast a shadow over the summer vacation.

That’s certainly the case for members of the Greek government. Much to the consternation of the Germans, Athens has just said it will need a third bail-out.

Mrs Merkel is not pleased. There is concern that the issue could become a central point in the elections.

So why is Germany so important? And why does Angela Merkel make even strong men tremble in fear?

Germany is Europe’s richest country, with the strongest economy which seems to have weathered the euro storm with relative equanimity, with still acceptable employment rates, buoyant exports and money in the coffers.

German politics are reassuringly predictable. Mrs Merkel will almost certainly be re-elected as chancellor although the coalition she leads may change. Germans respect and trust her to run domestic affairs while also keeping other EU governments on the straight and narrow.

Having watched her performance at press conferences, small and big, there is no denying that the German leader is cool-headed, thoughtful and intelligent.

German journalists say she has a good sense of humour, loves to banter and likes to eat and drink with gusto.

Critics accuse her of being reactive rather than pro-active, slow to respond to the euro crisis and heartless in her unwavering focus on making sure that other Europeans follow Germany’s lead in keeping their spendthrift ways in check.

But even as they grumble over her focus on austerity and fiscal discipline, rather than growth, as the correct response to the euro crisis, other European leaders almost always follow her lead.

And it is true that a number of important EU decisions, including on questions like a Europe-wide banking union are on pause while everyone waits for the German elections.

There is speculation that Merkel may one day be interested in a top EU job. But for the moment, she looks almost certain to be re-elected on Sept 22.

Observers say only a so-called “September surprise” — say, German involvement in a Middle Eastern war or a euro blowout leading to an economic collapse comparable to that which erupted in 2008 — can stop her now.

News reports say that the most popular outcome — 51pc of voters say they favour it — would be a grand coalition of Merkel and the social democrats, similar to the one Mrs Merkel led from 2005 to 2009. The only trouble is that members of the rival SPD hate the idea.

As the Financial Times reported recently, presidents François Hollande of France and Barack Obama of the US believe a grand coalition would guarantee more growth.

But it also warns that “Ms Merkel’s mantra of ‘solidarity in exchange for solidity’ — meaning that Berlin will stand by its eurozone partners, but only if they ‘put their own houses in order’ — will remain at the heart of German policy”.

There is a fly in the ointment, however: the possibility that Greece will need another financial bail-out next year. German voters do not like the idea. “No more money for Greeks,” warns Germany’s tabloid press.

Germans argue that while on the one hand, some complain that Berlin is dictating the European agenda, others want Berlin to exercise more leadership in order to pull Europe out of the crisis.

In a recent speech in Berlin, Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski said that he was more afraid of German inactivity than German leadership. He said he was asking for action, not money.

An important point to note is that while in the past Germany and France worked hand in hand on EU affairs, the Franco-German tandem is currently out of balance.

France has been weakened by sluggish growth rates, high unemployment and the unwillingness of its socialist government to pursue much-needed reforms. The UK is pondering an exit from the EU. The rest of the Union appears helpless and paralysed.

As a result, all eyes are on Germany. Berlin insists that it does not want a leadership role and certainly does not aspire to create a “German Europe”.

But here in Brussels, there is no doubt that Germany is Europe’s super power — albeit admittedly a reluctant one.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.