Paul Hockenos is author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.
Germany's decision this week to turn its back on nuclear power by 2022 and embrace a future fueled by renewable energy may have been historic, but it was hardly the product of a political visionary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived at this achievement almost despite herself, and only by means of a conspicuous and careening political U-turn. Although the new nuclear policy is a real cause for celebration for Germans, Merkel, try as she might, can't plausibly bask in the limelight: In the words of German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, "It's as if the pope were suddenly advocating the use of birth control pills."
In keeping with the rest of her tenure as chancellor of Germany, Merkel's scrapping of nuclear energy has been stumbling and reactive, not confident and bold. In Europe, Germany's goodbye to the atom — as the world's fourth-largest industrial nation — is being compared in its political magnitude to reunification at the end of the Cold War. But while Helmut Kohl's deliberate diplomacy in 1990 secured him a place in history — and two more terms in office — Merkel is suffering miserably at the polls and in the press.
Indeed, it's impossible for political opponents and the media to resist pointing out that her conservative coalition's new stance on nuclear energy amounts to a drastic volte-face on one of its signature electoral platforms: Merkel's latest plan directly contradicts a law passed just six months earlier, designed to extend the operating lives of Germany's nuclear energy facilities by up to 14 years.
No, it wasn't foresight or vision behind the new policies, but desperation. In the face of overwhelming public skepticism of nuclear power in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, a Green Party topping Merkel's Christian Democrats in regional elections, and an anti-nuclear energy movement mobilizing hundreds of thousands in the streets, Merkel believed she had no other choice. The real kudos go to Germany's tenacious anti-nuclear opponents, who over four decades never wavered from their insistence that nuclear power had no future in Germany. Unsurprisingly, the environmentalists who are cautiously sizing up the newly accelerated phase-out aren't tempted to give Merkel a smidgen of credit for something she and her conservative party long resisted.
Merkel latest policy shift has thus put her government in a quandary, sacrificing the wishes of her coalition's conservative base — and, critically, the powerful nuclear energy lobby in southern Germany — without plausibly picking up any new voters from elsewhere on the political spectrum. Were national elections held today, her conservative-liberal alliance would be trounced, and rightfully so. A share of the blame certainly goes to the Christian Democrats' junior partner, the Free Democrats, whose missteps and unhappy figure in the foreign ministry, Guido Westerwelle, have contributed to the free fall of the coalition's popularity. But Merkel's flimsy leadership and singular lack of vision are the real grounds for the crisis. It has become impossible to decipher what Merkel really believes in, a puzzle reflected in her administration's meager record.
It seems an eternity ago that Merkel won Germans' hearts and votes. Kohl took her under his wing in the 1990s, but it was Merkel, and Merkel alone, who made the most of her opportunity in a Catholic, male-dominated, thoroughly West German party that direly needed modernizing. Merkel stood out in every way: an East German, female, Protestant, professional, twice-married, childless physicist. In contrast with Germany's traditional alpha-male politicos, her unglamorous style, straight talk, and down-to-earth manner were a welcome relief. Her unique biography and outsider status made her the perfect person to sweep aside cobwebbed thinking and challenge the interests that were blocking reform in her party and the republic at large.
But that was then. Since taking the country's top office in 2005, she has flip-flopped so many times that her twists and turns have become impossible to keep track of. Candidate Merkel originally ran on a radical free-market platform that went over so badly with voters that Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats very nearly snatched victory from the jaws of certain defeat six years ago. Thereafter, Merkel became overnight a convincing spokesperson for the social welfare state, even reversing some of the Social Democrats' more dramatic liberalizing reforms.
And then there was Merkel the "Climate Chancellor," who as European Council president in 2008 boxed through tough carbon dioxide emissions standards for the continent. In no time, though, she was pushing through exceptions for Germany's auto industry, producer of Europe's most notorious gas guzzlers.
So too on other EU affairs. Merkel was briefly heralded for her pro-Europe convictions, as the legitimate heir of her mentor Kohl. But in dealing with the European financial crisis, her instinct has been to play to Germany's id, rather than its superego. Her recent broadside about southern Europeans' early retirement ages and long vacations — in other words, their laziness — went over well in Germany's tabloid press, precisely because they fanned the latent anti-EU sentiments smoldering in the country. A truly worthy heir of Kohl would have explained to the average burgher in plain-speak that Germany profits enormously from exports to southern Europe and the European Union in general. At a time when the German economy is booming, this should have been possible — and would have boosted Germany into the role of EU guarantor rather than priming it to view Europe as its adversary.
Nor has Merkel's foreign policy displayed consistency that hints at any bigger-picture plan. When in the opposition, she took Schröder's left-leaning "Red-Green" government to task for spurning the U.S.-led coalition on Iraq. Yet when it came to aiding the Libyan rebels trying to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi — a mission considerably less dodgy than ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003 — Berlin opted to sit it out, for reasons no one in Merkel's government can quite explain. It's no wonder that U.S. President Barack Obama flew straight over Germany on his recent trip to Europe, an unprecedented snub in the history of transatlantic relations. Since Europe's most powerful woman took office, Germany has undeniably lost clout in the international arena, and its dreams of a permanent U.N. Security Council seat are now pure fantasy.
Merkel's fans call her a pragmatist, one not keen to fight losing battles and with an appetite for sniffing out political consensus. The flip-flop on nuclear energy, say these admirers, is another example of how she can employ her ideological flexibility to defend her party's gains in a hostile political landscape. According to this theory, Merkel was smart enough not only to recognize that her energy policies in the wake of Fukushima were no longer tenable, but also that the implosion of the Free Democrats has made the reelection of her coalition a near impossibility. The only chance for Merkel to remain chancellor after 2013, then, is as head of a Christian Democrat-Green coalition. Even though the Greens have condemned the conditions of Merkel's nuclear pullout plan as inadequate, a "Nein, danke" to nuclear power is a nonnegotiable precondition for a "black-green" coalition, the likes of which have already popped up in smaller German cities and states. Some observers even say she has cleverly stolen the left-wing opposition's trump card and will win back voters by making Germany a model for clean, energy-efficient states with a thriving trade in solar panels and wind turbines. Finally, a vision! Even if it's not hers.
But it's hard to believe that Merkel can credibly reinvent herself again as the "ecology chancellor" and simply follow the path of least resistance to another term in office. In fact, her dramatic confirmation of Green policies will probably put wind in the sails of the original environmental party, cementing its status as a viable alternative to both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. What Merkel may well have done is pave the way for the first-ever Green chancellor in 2013, as head of a ruling coalition like the one currently in the southwestern region of Baden-Württemberg. If this happens, Merkel will certainly be a chancellor for the German history books, if not in the way she may have wished.