Angela's eastern allies

By bne IntelliNews July 23, 2012

Sherelle Jacobs in Cologne -

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is no stranger to ridicule in the press, both at home and abroad. She has been lambasted by her critics for years on issues ranging from her "hawkish" foreign policy to her "unflattering" bowl haircut. But the venom of attacks on Merkel in the Western European press has unmistakably increased over the last few of months as schisms over the Eurozone crisis open up across the region.

In June's edition of the New Statesman (a British left-leaning publication), political editor Mehdi Hasan referred to Merkel as "the most dangerous German leader since Hitler." The magazine's front cover controversially depicted her as a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and a crazed cyborg. One particularly colourful cartoon in the press also recently depicted the chancellor as an avaricious Roman god feeding on the flesh of poor, defenceless Greeks. More widely, distasteful comparisons between the current German cabinet and the Nazis have become more common.

Moreover, Germany's recent concessions at the EU summit in June, including the granting of direct aid from the Eurozone's bailout funds to banks that need recapitalisation, prompted the country's critics in particular to quickly characterise Berlin as a failure, unable to withstand the pressure from an increasingly united anti-austerity Western European bloc led by French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. In terms of its position on the European stage now, Germany is frequently depicted as isolated, alone in its convictions, obstinate and vulnerable.

But a big flaw in this "Germany versus the world" narrative is that it leaves Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries entirely out of the debate. So on which side does the emerging part of Europe tend to in this euro crisis saga?

On board

Overall, the CEE region is a source of strength for Germany and its pro-austerity stance. First, many of the Baltic countries seem, at least on a political level, to embody the argument that austerity can pay off. Estonia subjected itself to tough austerity measures in the three years following the 2008 crisis. The alleged reward for their endurance: 7.6% growth last year, something which the government has been keen to point out on the European stage.

Latvia also gained press attention at the end of June when economists and high-profile political actors, including US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, praised Riga's austerity measures over the last few years as inspirational (although the hypothesis has since been tested by other economists and think-tanks, including the Levy Economics Institute.)

Moreover, many CEE countries have directly supported Merkel and her austerity mantra. Estonia's government has consistently backed Merkel's policies and voiced their staunch opposition to Eurozone bonds during the last EU leaders summit at the end of June. The other CEE country in the Eurozone, Slovakia, has shown similar support: most recently, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico visited Berlin at the beginning of July and echoed the "Iron Chancellor's" mantra when he said his country would tolerate no further bailout demands from the EU until countries got their finances in order.

Other CEE countries, although not in the euro, have also contributed to the strengthening of the pro-austerity voice in the region. For example, although relations are far from smooth between Berlin and Prague, Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas has little in common with Germany's Mediterranean antagonists; he has frequently expressed his anxiety that Merkel will not be able to withstand pressure from Europe's anti-austerity bloc.

Intriguingly, Merkel is also much less the target of savage scrutiny in the CEE media. "Merkel is generally not a hate figure in Eastern European press," says Jana Kobzova, Wider Europe Programme co-ordinator and Policy Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR).

"Firstly, she tends to be respected on a personal level, coming from East Germany. But more importantly, her stress on austerity really resonates in these countries, because they have done it and, as far as a lot of people are concerned, historically it has worked. Countries like Hungary and Poland all went through these things in the 1990s. They get it," she says.

But, despite the fact CEE countries largely support austerity and their citizens are generally more sympathetic towards Germany's leader, their governments' influence over European debate is still constrained by several factors. One is that most CEE nations remain outside of the Eurozone - only the small nations of Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia are in the euro and, thus, have any real degree of influence over discussions pertaining to its future. The biggest CEE economies, including the Czech Republic and Poland, are automatically relegated to the fringes of debate.

Emerging Europe also fails to operate as a united political bloc on the European stage, according to experts. "CEE countries simply cannot be described as a bloc," says Kobzova. "Although they broadly agree that you cannot have growth unless you get your finances under control, key countries like Poland have largely been acting on their own on the European stage."

Interestingly, according to Kobzova, the UK could, in theory, be the ideal key to building the foundations for a powerful CEE voice in Europe and on the Eurozone crisis. However, that would rely on the UK backing the fiscal pact, something which looks highly unlikely since British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to do so back in December, mainly because it would have involved treaty changes. "The CEE felt let down by the UK [after the December summit]. These mostly smaller countries want strong EU institutions, which they see as a helpful balancer against the power of the big member states such as France or Germany, whose voice has increased after the UK opted out of the fiscal union," Kobzova says. "CEE also feared - and continues to fear - that an EU without the UK would be less pro-market and more regulated a la France, which is not something CEE wants."

Nonetheless, despite the clear limitations to the CEE region's ability to shape the euro crisis discourse, editing the whole region out of political coverage of it is not only inaccurate; it is also perhaps a little too convenient for those opposed to Germany's position, however justified they might be in their objections. Euro crisis followers should take note.

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