With that absence of pomp and ceremony that is one of the characteristics of domestic German politics, the Ministers of the new German GroKo – an acronym for the grand coalition that has just been declared word of the year – lined up to swear fealty to the President of the Bundestag. In a brief and cursory audience earlier, Merkel had received the formal blessing of the federal President, Joachim Gauck.

Very little pomp indeed at the start of Angela Merkel’s third term. Two terms away from the records of Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, one ahead of Gerhardt Schröder, and on the verge of tying with Helmut Schmidt.

Will this woman from the East enter the ranks of the great Chancellors? Much will depend on what happens to Europe, with that European Union that is usurping the continental title. Merkel came along in 2005 when the union was still making that narcissistic claim that it meant prosperity and peace. That European peace has ignored the many wars that the members of the new Europe, colonial nations, have waged away from Europe ever since the integration of the continent and that they continue to keep going today, as well as one in the Balkans that took place under its own nose. With respect to prosperity, that has simply vanished.

A Europe of different categories

And so the two great founding myths of that Europe that Merkel first encountered have been demolished. Instead, a crack runs across the continent. It was always there, but only now has it become obvious: the Europe of different categories. One, comprised of those net beneficiaries of the euro, which defend austerity and the full repayment of the banking debts; Germany stands in the middle of this group.

Another, hesitant and undermined, is represented chiefly by France. Another is in various stages of crisis and prostration: from Portugal to Italy, through to Spain, Slovenia, Cyprus, and Ireland. And a last class, given up as a lost cause as the pure periphery and sunk in degradation: Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania.

This cracked Europe will be what will mark the third mandate of Merkel, which has got off to a start under a government coalition that she is undeniably the master of, with overwhelming parliamentary support, a very small opposition and a socio-economic situation domestically that is ambiguous but stable, especially compared to most of the rest of Europe.

Respond to the unexpected

To declare that they expect no surprises in a context so unsettled would be folly. It is true that that is what is suggested in the 185-page coalition agreement signed with the Social Democrats, whose leaders were soundly defeated in the September elections but who are very happy to climb into their new Ministerial armchairs today: the coalition documents, however, do not dictate the reality.

Particularly in times of crisis, to govern is to respond to the unexpected. Angela Merkel wants to sail in one direction, but the shifting winds can take her anywhere.

And Europe is not only in crisis in its Western half. In the East, something akin to a cold war is brewing with Russia. The EU, with Germany out front, seems to regard the Ukraine as its own backyard; it is interfering with Russian energy exports and stirring the Muscovite bear with all kinds of military provocations from NATO, including a missile shield against Iran that it is not going to cancel even if there is a détente with Tehran. Russia has already placed missiles in the Baltic region, and there is no mention in the German coalition document of the traditional demand to remove the American bombs that Germany has on its own territory.