Europe's presidents usually do not figure much in the press. Last week, however, was exceptional. Two presidents whom most people outside their own countries had never heard of made the international headlines: President Karolos Papoulias of Greece, and President Christian Wulff of Germany. Last week was also the week in which French President Nicolas Sarkozy of France officially announced that he will stand for reelection.
Unlike in the U.S., in most European countries the head of state is not the head of the government. The kings and queens of the various European monarchies have only limited political powers, and the functions they fulfill are mostly ceremonial. With the exception of France, Europe's presidents have also mainly ceremonial functions, while the political leaders of their countries are the prime ministers or, in Germany's case, the chancellor.
Last Wednesday, the 82-year old President of Greece, Karolos Papoulias lashed out rather unceremoniously at Germany after German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had said on German television that he doubted whether all the political parties in Greece are aware of their responsibility for the difficult situation in their country. The European Union (EU) is currently considering helping Greece to overcome its financial problems by providing it with €130bn ($171.6bn). In return, however, the Europeans – and especially Germany that will be paying the bulk of the aid packet – demand that Greece introduce austerity measures. Since Greece is heading for elections in April and since it already needs the money next month to avoid bankruptcy, the Germans want all the major Greek parties to guarantee that the austerity measures will be implemented, no matter which party leads the country after the elections.
As the promises of some parties could not be trusted, Schäuble suggested that perhaps the Greek elections might be postponed and an interim government of technocrats installed. Papoulias reacted in anger. "I don't accept insults to my country," the visibly agitated Greek president said at a dinner with military officials. "As a Greek, I don't accept it. Who is Mr. Schäuble to ridicule Greece?" The outburst came as a shock, as Papoulias, who studied in Germany in the 1950s and speaks fluent German, was considered one of the few friends the Germans have left in Greece – a country where (as we related here last week) anti-German feelings are running high.
There was not much understanding in Germany for Papoulias's agitated response. "People in Greece like to forget that there are also voters in the donor countries who do not want just to play along with everything. And their patience – like that of the politicians – has now been exhausted," the German conservative daily Die Welt wrote. "It is a bit much for the Greek president to accuse the German finance minister of insulting the Greeks," the centrist Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote. "Indeed, everyone knows that Greek politicians ran up debts, failed to collect taxes and ignored corruption."
Barely two days later, however, the Germans' own president, 52-year old Christian Wulff, resigned over allegations of corruption. As we wrote here in early January, in 2008 Wulff and his wife received an advantageous loan of €500,000 ($649,000) from the wife of a wealthy businessman. Last December, when the newspaper Bild got hold of the story, Wulff tried to intimidate the paper and its owners not to run it. When the story of this press intimidation broke, most other politicians would probably have resigned, but Wulff obstinately hung on. Last Friday, however, after the public prosecutor asked for the president's immunity of prosecution to be lifted, Wulff finally stepped down.
His resignation is an embarrassment for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Two years ago, German President Horst Köhler, a Christian-Democrat like Merkel, resigned after making a controversial political statement by advocating a greater German role in military missions abroad. As the president is a ceremonial figure, he is not supposed to make controversial political statements. Köhler stepped down under pressure from both the Socialist opposition and Merkel, who subsequently had the Bundestag install her protégé, Wulff, as the new president.
The resignation of two presidents in less than two years is an embarrassment for Germany, but especially for Merkel. The president is appointed by the parliament but needs to be a consensus figure acceptable to all the major parties. The Socialists have announced that, as the last two presidents were Christian-Democrats who undermined the credibility of the presidential institution, another Christian-Democrat is unacceptable to them. They have proposed 72-year old Joachim Gauck, a former human rights activist from Communist East Germany, and who had aleady been a candidate in 2010, for the function. As the country cannot be without a president for long, the appointment of Wulff's successor is currently Merkel's most urgent business. She wants to have to post filled as soon as possible.
Paradoxically, Gauck has a very good chance of becoming the next German President because Merkel is worrying more about the election of a president other than Germany's. In early May, France is holding presidential elections. Last week, Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he is standing for a second term. France's presidential system resembles America's. Sarkozy is the only president in Europe who, in addition to being the ceremonial head of state, is also his country's political leader. Together with Chancellor Merkel, Sarkozy is trying to save the euro, the common currency of 17 EU nations, by saving Greece from bankruptcy through massive bailouts from Europe in return for Greek austerity programs.
If Sarkozy loses the elections to his Socialist opponent, François Hollande, Merkel is in serious trouble. As we told here recently, Hollande has announced that, if he is elected, he will renegotiate the fiscal treaty which the EU countries, at Merkel's instigation, approved in late January. If Hollande, who is currently leading in the polls, becomes France's next president, Merkel's European policies collapse. Then all the political and financial capital which she has already invested in saving Greece may have been spent in vain. In short, Merkel's political future depends more on Sarkozy than on who becomes the next president in Germany. For Merkel, losing the French president is worse than losing the German president. But the resignation of the latter has tarnished her domestic credibility and might be an ominous sign of even worse things to come.