Last week I was supposed to meet an Italian economist to talk about the never-ending political crisis in his home country. I waited for more than half an hour but he never showed up. At first I was a bit upset because it took me some effort to make this meeting possible. A nasty thought crept up in my mind: “Maybe that’s all I need to know what’s wrong with Italy.”
There it was: the clichés about Italy that many Germans, like me, conjure up as they watch, with a mixture of disbelief and horror, the latest crisis in Italy unfolding. So I caught myself. I started to wonder whether our German attitude of superiority has something to do with what is going on in Rome.
When you open up your mind, your thoughts are uncensored and thus bolder. So I kept going with my thoughts. Maybe, I thought, the political landscape of Germany is not so different from that in Italy after all.
Take the common German notion that there is no political stability in Italy. This is mostly built on the fact that Italy had more than 60 different governments in the 70 years since World War II, whereas Germany in that time had only 24.
As in Italy, the German political landscape looks fragmented these days.
Nevertheless, Germany no longer is an oasis of stability. It took the main political parties seven months to form a new government after the last general election in September 2017. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative party could have easily formed a coalition with the Greens and the Liberals it didn’t happen. Instead, the negotiations broke down because the Liberals pulled out.
This is something Germans would generally expect to happen in countries like Italy, but not at home. So much about German efficiency and stability in politics.
For seven months, Germans had the truly un-German experience of living under a caretaker government. They watched their political leaders pointing fingers at one another. Some of those leaders didn’t even want to govern. In the end, Germans were left with the devil they knew but did not want: yet another “grand coalition” between conservatives and Social Democrats. It was the third time the two main parties came to rescue the image of German stability. But that image was already shattered.
As in Italy, the German political landscape looks fragmented these days. A right-wing anti-immigration party, called the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), runs neck-and-neck in the polls with the Social Democrats, a party that is 155 years old. The clouds of populism may look darkest right now in Italy. But the country is hardly the only one to deal with a rebellion against the political establishment. If these currents in German politics grow stronger, there is a real danger that Germany might become unmoored as the anchor of Europe.
Germany hasn’t been a great captain.
An anchor is supposed to make sure that boats don’t drift away and the fleet stays together. By this definition, Germany hasn’t been a good anchor, or captain. A good captain of Europe would give his boats a little extra rope to make sure they have room to maneuver. Germany has kept the rope of the euro zone supertight from the beginning.
As the first storms showed up on the horizon and the waters got really choppy, the bonds between the European mother ship and the southern boats were stretched to the breaking point. People in Greece, Spain, Portugal and now Italy — they all feel that they have been a tight German leash. Nobody likes to be on a leash.
Maybe we Germans should keep that in mind when we go on summer vacation over the next weeks. Italy still is our top destination. There must be something special about Italy to make us love it so.
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