The results of the Brussels summit this week underline one basic somewhat contradictory fact: If the euro were to collapse, it would be because Germany was not leading the effort to save it. At the same time, if Germany does lead that effort, it will include all the criticism that goes with leadership. This is the same kind of challenge the United States has had to face for decades. If you are the only leader available, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Ask anyone in the White House what that is like.
The past few weeks have seen this demonstrated in not only the debate over the crisis surrounding Greece, but also the larger framework of getting a grip on the challenges facing the euro. It is not only the chancellor who is part of the discussions in Brussels and in other capitals. It is also the disposition of the Bundestag, the stability of the Berlin governing coalition, and even Germany’s Supreme Court’s decisions on which other non-Germans focus. Germany looms large at many levels and, therefore, commands the equivalent attention.
That is a demonstration of the increasing power and influence Germany exerts over Europe. Just as the rest of the world looks warily at the US President, the role of the U.S. Congress is equally on the minds of those dealing with Washington. So it is with Germany − sixty five years after a war, when Germany looked very different than it does today.
A European Germany
Ever since the end of World War II, the slogan German leaders had always at the ready was Thomas Mann’s call for “a European Germany, not a German Europe.” It was on that basis that Germany agreed to become a member of NATO, to support and pay for the European Union, and ultimately agreed to sacrifice the D-Mark for the Euro.
Despite conspiratorial comments − mostly out of London − that Germany may have lost World War II, but was recovering its hegemonic control of Europe with its strong economy, Germany, especially a united Germany, was to demonstrate that it’s economic model – export power, industry-labor relations, the precision product quality − was more successful than anyone else. The reforms under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder further laid the foundations for Germany’s successful steering through the financial storm of the last three years. Germany’s GDP did not suffer the same fate as others in Europe and its exports surged while its employment rate increased. Meanwhile, unemployment in France is nearing 10%, with some shaky economic trends worrying many in the ratings branch.
In that context, the combination of the challenge of an ever more asymmetric European monetary union and the increasing skepticism among Germans about the lack of discipline among their European neighbors recalibrated the political perceptions in Germany. It began to seem to many Germans that perhaps a more German Europe − with more fiscal and economic rules, as well as discipline − might make for a better Europe, if only the club members would follow that path.
The problem was – and is – that Germans have not wanted to say that too much, or too loudly. The idea of German leadership was always going to be caught up not only with the present, but also with the past. One can see that today on the streets of Athens amidst the signs protesting the austerity measures, with references to Germany’s occupation in the Second World War.
Apart from that problem, the fact is that Europe’s complicated mosaic of different countries, cultures, and institutions was never going to enable Germany to be completely emulated. And there is also the fact that a German-scale trade surplus, extended over the whole of Europe, could lead to global trade frictions.
Germany’s Balancing Act
So what is a German Chancellor to do when walking amongst, and on, these various tight ropes? For one thing, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been forced to make sure that her own country is behind her in the negotiations with one standard message: if the euro fails, then Europe fails, and Germany takes a huge hit. That is all essentially true. The European Union would do damage to itself not only in Europe, but around the world. The German economy, having been the chief beneficiary from the euro, would be seriously impacted. Yet, that message has not been able to eliminate the increasing skepticism in Germany toward both the Euro, as well as its neighbors south of the Pyrenees. The charges of having to “bail out” the Greeks, or other member states, have generated a good deal of populist sentiment in Germany. These sentiments have proven useful for some politicians seeking to take advantage of them for their own domestic purposes. This is compounded by the fact that Germany’s Supreme Court has weighed in on a number of occasions with a warning about sustaining German sovereignty over its political and economic system, along with reminding the Parliament of its responsibilities to monitor said sovereignty.
A Hiding Hegemon
All of those domestic troubles become part of Chancellor Merkel’s maneuvering through the European jungle of both domestic interests, and wariness of Germany’s intentions in several countries, which are very capable of conjuring up the ghosts of the past for their own purposes.
What came out of the Brussels summit this week seemed to be a demonstration of how Merkel must balance all of these spinning plates. Yet in doing so, it is clear that playing the hiding hegemon in Europe is not going to work as it might have in the past. The formula Germany used so successfully in the past revolved around the two maxims: never again and never alone. That worked particularly well in tandem with France. But the equation of power, which has been shifting ever since the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was unified, spells a different framework for Germany and for Europe.
With ten new members in eastern Europe seeking to play their own role in a larger Union, with Great Britain still holding itself aloof from the Euro (including a shaky new government letting its own nationalist sentiment play on populist anti-European waves), and with a weakened France and Italy held hostage by its own inept political leadership, Germany has to step up its game if Europe is to survive the most critical crisis it has ever faced.
Merkel did that this week. She will have to do it many more time as long as she is Chancellor – presumably for another two years if her governing coalition holds together until the next scheduled elections in 2013.
Not a Zero Sum Game
Merkel’s Germany did not cause the problems Europe faces alone– that was a joint European endeavor. However, Merkel’s Germany will have to take the lead in finding solutions. The message will have to be that the crisis offers an opportunity to strengthen Europe’s capacity to prevent the current problems from resurfacing. That will require using her own version of the bully pulpit more frequently at home and in Brussels.
The words of Thomas Mann may still remind her that there need not be a zero sum game between “more Europe” and its member states. The US slogan “e Pluribus Unum” certainly did not eliminate the diversity with the American Republic. Indeed, it did not prevent an ugly and blood-filled civil war. Nor has it led to a homogenization of American politics, as the current presidential election campaign so amply demonstrates today.
If Germany must take the lead in pushing a European agenda forward, then it must, in equal measures, bring national interests in sync with a European-wide set of goals, in which all have a stake as well as responsibilities. Someone must be responsible for articulating that. For now, Merkel is the most important messenger.
This essay appeared in the October 28, 2011 AICGS Advisor.