Are Germans really opposed to bailouts?

Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel's refusal to dig deep to help indebted eurozone countries is commonly explained by two feelings attributed to German voters - an ingrained fear of inflation and a reluctance to bail out those in trouble. But polling by the Pew Research Center in the US suggests the picture is more complex, says one of its directors, Bruce Stokes.

Spanish borrowing costs are back up over 7% for 10-year bonds and Italian costs are over 6%, levels that many financial analysts think are unsustainable. The euro has fallen in value to $1.23. And the European Union has accelerated its bailout of Spanish banks.

The initial positive global financial market reaction to the most recent European Union efforts to tame the euro crisis lasted for less than a week. Europe is clearly not out of the woods yet.

If more action is needed, all eyes will be on Germany and on German chancellor Angela Merkel. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that the German public is ready to give Merkel more room for manoeuvre than is generally recognised. But Merkel's problem is with her conservative political base.

Contrary to the eurosceptic headlines in Germany's tabloid press, the German people are more pro-European than most of their counterparts in eight European nations surveyed by Pew Research in late March of this year.

They are much more likely than other Europeans to still believe in the benefits of European economic integration and to see the European Union in a favourable light.

Moreover, Merkel is the most popular elected leader in Europe. Eight out of 10 Germans think she has done a good job in handling the European economic crisis. And a more recent Infratest-ARD survey found that two-thirds of Germans were satisfied with her overall performance and 58% believe Merkel's stance in the euro crisis is correct and decisive.

Of course, political capital can be a wasting asset. And the window of political opportunity could close at any time.

Until then, the Pew Research data suggests the German people are willing to consider various policy actions now being debated in Europe.

Germany's painful experience with hyperinflation in the 1920s is often cited as the reason Germany will never support aggressive initiatives by the European Central Bank to ease the euro crisis.

But Germans are more concerned about unemployment (70% say it is a major threat) than they are about inflation (56%). Among the European nations the Pew Research Center surveyed, the Germans are the least fearful of rising prices.

Similarly, the German public is split, not opposed, to helping others - 49% favour financial assistance to other distressed European economies, 48% oppose. And public support for such aid has actually risen slightly from 42% in 2010.

Image caption Is Merkel speaking for German voters?

The opposition to such action comes not from the German public, but from Merkel's own conservative political base. About half (53%) of German conservatives oppose bailouts, while just 40% of those on the left oppose them.

In late November 1963, days after the assassination of president John F Kennedy, the new president Lyndon Johnson assembled his closest aides to discuss possible messages in his forthcoming speech to Congress.

Noting the staunch opposition to civil rights by Southern Democrats, one adviser counselled Johnson not to waste his newly-inherited political capital on a seemingly hopeless cause.

"Well," replied Johnson, according to Robert Caro's new book The Passage of Power, "what the hell's the presidency for?"

Nearly a half century later, German chancellor Angela Merkel faces a similar moment of truth: "what the hell's the chancellorship for?"

The German public appears willing to give her the freedom to act.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, which has published a full report on this subject