Trying to steer Europe through its current challenges has been compared to open heart surgery. Keeping the patient alive while fixing the problems is risky. And the patient must have confidence in the surgical team that they know what the problem is.
Germany may be the chief surgeon, but it is in a serious debate with other Europeans about the diagnosis. Meanwhile, the patient is on various forms of life support while the arguments continue.
Nowadays confidence seems to be a rare commodity at multiple levels in Europe. Citizens have doubts about their national leaders’ ability to manage the challenges and threats racing toward them. They have even greater doubts about their leaders’ ability to forge a consensus across the European Union on what ails the continent.
Germany is still confident that its assessment of the problem is correct. Unsustainable levels of debt, rampant corruption (at least in the case of Greece), and a lack of competiveness are all closely linked problems. They are the cancers that need to be removed. Ultimately, the disease is the result of morally reckless behavior, and the patient can only be saved if he himself finds the moral fiber to redeem his actions. A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by foreign minister Guido Westerwelle spelled out the cure. There was a mix of bitter medicine and therapy along with rehabilitation, which can last for years. But overall, according to Westerwelle, the heavy lifting has to come from member states themselves. Too much solidarity would kill incentives to implement structural reforms and abandon the road to perdition. Germany’s strategy of providing just enough solidarity to give weaker euro zone member countries enough time to enact reforms is therefore still seen as the best way forward. Greece is almost perceived as a dangerous annoyance. It provides excuses to all those countries not entirely serious about getting a grip on their debt problems and doing what is necessary to regain competitiveness.
It’s therefore not surprising that Westerwelle praises the structural reforms some EMU member states have undertaken, and he encourages them to stay the course. His message to euro zone member countries is simple: be patient and virtous, endure the pain. He adds: “The experience in Germany, Poland and the Baltic states indicates that they will succeed.” Unfortunately, this fatherly empathy is unlikely to stem the rising anti-German tide across the continent and the Atlantic. In fact, it could even have the opposite effect. Politically, as the election results in Greece and France have shown, resentment against the German approach to the crisis has already claimed a number of victims. While polls show that Germany might be admired for what it has achieved over the last several years, most Europeans still do not want to become German.