Parakeet Scream after 16 years: Merkel Has Disappointed Even as EU Owes Her Tons of Gratitude
The Merkel Era, just as grand as it has been tumultuous, has come to a close with a parakeet scream, a pretend one. Or a real one.
As the German chancellor of 16 years decided it might be a good idea to release some funny photos of herself with rainbow parakeets, including one in which is she is screaming in horror with birds eating seeds from her hands, the metaphor of the end of her era for the European Union at least, a little less for her native Germany, has written itself.
Apparently, the photo of Merkel screaming with the birds pecking her in the Marlow bird park is a funny, pretend one – but one can’t really tell that by looking at it without being told she’s pretending, or without seeing the other photos.
Frankly, my first impression was that it’s real, and looking at it, I was reminded of “The Scream” painting by Edvard Munch.
What would a parakeet scream metaphor be about as German Chancellor Angela Merkel is about to step down sometime soon – as soon as a new coalition government is formed in Germany after Sunday’s federal election – maybe even before Christmas 2021 – as she has served her fourth four-year term?
Before delving into that it’s worth recalling how long Merkel has been around and that there is a good reason for that since she isn’t the vicious dictator usurping power in some rogue state but has been reelected time and again by one of the most democratic nations out there.
A chart by Statista shows that Merkel’s 16 years in office covered fully or partly the terms serviced by four French Presidents, four American presidents, five British prime ministers, eight Italian prime ministers, eight Japanese prime ministers, two Chinese presidents, two Indian prime ministers, and five South Korean presidents.
Back in 2006 I studied in Berlin for a semester, and I remember how some of my American classmates gave picked “Angela Merkel” as the topic of their initial presentation on Germany – even back then I had the feeling that she had been around as German leader for a very, very long time.
On top of that, Merkel decided to step down herself, a decision announced a while ago, and she might even become the longest serving German Chancellor ever if the new government talks drag on, theoretically maybe even into the early days of 2022.
The parakeet scream metaphor would suggest that Merkel’s 16-year in power in both Germany, and, by extension, the European Union, would be like that thing which has been rather nice, put in the most simplistic of words, and yet, somehow, at the end of it, your gut feeling of maybe lost chances and even bigger threats lurking might get you somewhat terrified.
Because the fact of the matter has been that Angela Merkel as leader of Germany but also of the European Union has had a very “nice” run, in spite of being forced to tackle a pretty big number of challenges that have been quite apocalyptic by the standards of the early post-Cold War Era of victorious Western liberalist and consumerist bliss.
Nonetheless, for all her tremendous crisis management efforts, for all the skill she put into standing out as an anchor of stability for Europe and the West, and, by extension, world politics, for the cases in which she played a decisive role in preventing a collapse of the European Union – she is now leaving the EU, with which her native Germany is so closely intertwined – just as exposed and maybe even more exposed that it was during even most shocking crises that she managed to handle.
Part of that is due to the very challenges and threats themselves becoming worse and more horrifying in a world that is rapidly growing in so many ways, but in which good old plain human evil seems to be outpacing everything else in growth terms.
The other part is due to the fact that as a European leader, Angela Merkel and her peers didn’t jump in front of those other more ground-breaking events and developments by challenging the European Union’s comfort zone of old, mostly neoliberalist paradigms all over, and, respectively, didn’t put forth brave paradigm shifts in protection of Europe.
Thus, while the good people of the European Union actually do owe outgoing long-time German Chancellor a tremendous amount of gratitude simply because she save the EU more than once, her legacy as an EU leader remains disappointing simply because of the latter, second part mentioned above.
In other words, from her position of tremendous power and influence as the long-time, stable leader Merkel probably should have, could have – and maybe even might have been able to propel forward a greater security, defense, and identity security for the European Union – which would have made it more secure – as opposed to prolonging its being in the worst possible position in international politics which is the state of being rich and weak.
It’s also a state of overwhelmingly relying on others (the US of A) for your security and even survival – not a great idea as America’s quite disastrous pullout from Afghanistan under Joe Biden has showed.
It’s also a state of overwhelmingly relying on the forces of evil – dictators, terrorists, expansionists – not to attack you in the conventional or novel senses of the word – simply because you’re nice in general, and you’re being nice to them most of the time.
Hold on there for a second, many would jump in and state. Why is even Merkel supposed to be accountable from an EU perspective – she has been the elected leader of Germany, plus she seems to have done alright for the Germans, for the most part – or they wouldn’t have such respect for her, call her “Mutti” and so on?
Asking that question would convey a regretful misunderstanding of the worth of the EU for Germany, which is even greater than the worth of Germany for the EU. If it must be put in some blunt, crass terms, the EU is Germany’s ticket for finally being a true world power without having to attempt stuff such as World Wars, one and two, and of even then of being one in the nicest possible ways and terms, which also empower practically every other single EU member state to be a world power as well.
Why is that kind of status of being a world power even needed? To defend peace, freedom, democracy, human rights, and lead in the fight against global warming euphemistically known as climate change. Not to mention the ability to be defend yourself in a world where a whole bunch of mighty powers are being run by increasingly brutal leaders who couldn’t care less about all of the above but would be happy to crush you (Europe and Europeans) under their boots.
But back to the preceding question: it is safe to declare that Angela Merkel has been a leader of the European Union just as much as she has been a leader of Germany.
More than a decade ago I was interviewing a certain ambassador of Spain, one of the questions revolved around the President of the European Council, a new job at the time, and the respective diplomat told me in informal remarks that “the EU already has a president, and she is called Frau Merkel”.
I’ve remembered the quote because my young journalistic soul at the time felt indignant thought that of equating of a national leader, even that was the leader of the most powerful and biggest EU member states, to the imaginary job of being a “president of the EU” was unfair and counter-productive; that instead of relying on the skill and good will of one member state’s leader, the EU should have its own and they should be elected directly by the voters in all member states. In many ways, I still feel like that.
But that question is beside the point, plus one can’t help but ask whether it isn’t ungrateful to even raise the point of what Merkel could’ve done differently to potentially maybe bring some political science fiction novelties to the EU in security and assertive global policy terms.
That is, of course, a fair question considering all the crisis that Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany played a crucial role in getting the EU through intact and alive and well.
Think about them:
The global financial crisis
The sovereign debt crisis which nearly killed the euro
The Russia crisis with the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and the war in Donbass
The 2015 migrant crisis (this has been the one in which Merkel did worst, maybe followed by the above, inclduing the handling of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline)
The Brexit crisis
The Trump crisis in trans-Atlantic relations
The COVID-19 pandemic crisis
To name a few.
There is no doubt that these were all unprecedented crises, especially against the backdrop of the early post-Cold War period of Western triumphalism.
She managed well for the EU most of the crises – except the 2015 crisis of illegal immigration in which she blundered by literally inviting millions of economic migrants from the Middle East to settle in the EU and Germany – and this came from the leader who in 2010 acknowledged the failures of multi-kulti, the German version of “multiculturalism.”
Yet, through almost all of those crises, Merkel was the lowest (though highest-ranking) common denominator of stability, and she “held fast” the EU ship’s wheel and got it through the roughest of seas – more or less embattled but surviving. With Merkel at Germany’s helm, there was just a feeling that she isn’t going to let the EU collapse no matter what.
Much has been said and written about the German Chancellor’s reactive, cautious, behind-the-scenes, often last-minute rescue approach to high national, EU, and international politics.
So in terms of saving the EU and keeping it going in actually pretty decent shape Merkel has gotten the job done.
The problem with Merkel’s EU legacy, the part where the scream comes – and probably not a pretend one – amid the flock of rainbow parakeets, the disappointing handling of the European Union has to do with Merkel’s failure to be proactive, rather than reactive, with respect to the EU’s common identity, common security, and the ability to project power, which might be needed solely for two purposes: 1) self-defense; 2) the need to defend European values – from peace and freedom to fighting climate change.
Because politics is harsh, history is harsh, reality and hurt feelings don’t matter – even though that seem to be the rule for many things in the West, both in the US and the EU. Having all that the EU has comes with the price of having to defend it, and a failure to do so puts it all at risk of vanishing really quickly.
In 2016, as Donald Trump got elected President of the United States, a position whose job description also carries with it by default the informal Cold War-era but still meaningful title of “leader of the Free World”, The Washington Post declared Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel the new “leader of the Free World.”
WaPo’s adamant anti-Trump feelings aside, the idea that another Western leader, say the German Chancellor, could be the “leader of the Free World”, was an intriguing one, and Merkel herself was rumored to have enjoyed being called that.
The problem is that as “leader of the Free World” the American president, whoever they may be, has the indisputable capacity to defend the West/Free World – not just by virtue of the vast and diverse American economy, and the unstoppable American pop culture, shallow as it might be more often than not – but they also have several thousand nuclear ICBMs, 12 aircraft carrier battle groups, B-52s, F-35s, the US Marine Corps, you name it. And they have all of those elements of soft and hard power combined.
Against that backdrop, in the long years of the Merkel Era, with Merkel herself playing a central role, the EU preferred to keep sticking to the role of a golden egg laying goose whose gold eggs might as well be up for grabs since it is also a sitting duck. In the bluntest possible terms, the status and even survival of the European Union isn’t guaranteed by the EU itself even though it theoretically has the capacity to do so but by the goodwill protection by the US and the goodwill of potential EU enemies not to press hard against it.
The problem is that there are bigger and graver crises and challenges likely coming ahead, and probably not very hard into the future.
With Merkel gone together with her ultimately more or less successful reactive, crisis-management anchor-of-stability style, with her and her peers’ failure to revitalizing the European Union as a power in its own right so that it can fend for itself, too much insecurity is hanging above the European continent.
So this is the disappointment of Merkel’s legacy – even as the people of the EU have a lot to thank her for – and a Merkel parakeet scream, even after its biggest member state had a doubtlessly very capable leader for 16 the past years, is clearly in order, albeit sadly so.
(Above: A handout photo shows German Chancellor with rainbow parakeets during a visit in the bird park in Marlow on September 24, 2021)