Globalist Perspective

Angela Merkel, Mick Jagger and the European Diplomacy Game

What do the EU members need to learn if they want to get what they need — and if they can’t always get what they want?


  • Perhaps Mick Jagger said it best: "You can't always get what you want... but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need."
  • Helmut Kohl used to argue that Germany had to be strong enough to stand up to Russia — but not frighten Luxembourg.
  • The struggle for consensus in the clash of interests among 27 EU members defines the process that makes Europe what it is today — slow and sluggish, but also persistent.
  • The fact that Germany is a major source of funding for the EU gives it the leverage it needs to push its agenda.

At the beginning of this year, the Lisbon Treaty went into effect. Hailed as a huge step forward for the EU, there have already been calls to adapt it. It took almost ten years to get this complex arrangement approved, and reopening it is a dangerous step. Getting everyone on board was difficult enough the first time, and another try at changes would be risky in such a volatile economic and political environment as we see today and assuredly well into the future.

But the impact of this past year’s debt crises has ratcheted up the concerns about a possible repeat situation. For both domestic reasons as well as concerns about the stability of the eurozone project — and thereby the European project as a whole — Chancellor Merkel is taking a hard line together with France.

But that hard line — involving sanctions against overspending governments and mechanisms to deal with those facing default — has caused significant pushback from other EU members, the EU Commission and the head of the European Central Bank, who see this as an unexpected change of view in Berlin with the appearance of a Franco-German plot to push through their own interests without regard to those of others.

One particular point of tension emerged from Merkel’s proposal that anyone violating the default rules would have their vote in the EU decision-making process revoked. This was not well received, to put it mildly.

Without getting into the weeds of the arguments over how Europe is going to prevent another national fiscal meltdown among its membership, what we see being demonstrated by this clash is the complex relationship between national political interests and the European Union political process at work.

Paying at home

Chancellor Merkel has essentially argued that another fiscal crisis such as in Greece or elsewhere in Europe cannot be fixed on the backs of the taxpayers, be they German or otherwise. She just experienced the political consequences when voters see exactly that happening, losing the regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia and now facing another in Baden-Württemberg next year.

Yet one can also take at face value her position that Germany can’t provide institutionalized guarantees for defaulting members, if for no other reason than it would not be compatible with Germany’s constitutional parameters. A better solution needs to be found — and that could involve some changes ultimately in the Lisbon Treaty.

The question is: How do you get that done without opening up a Pandora’s Box of referenda and other national debates which took so long to digest before?

Franco-German strategy

Evidently, the way Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy went after this problem in a recent private meeting in France was not a formula for getting an EU-wide consensus. It was a formula for the Franco-German dimension of the EU to forge a position to then present to the EU membership in Brussels.

But the problem with that, as expedient as it might have been for Merkel and Sarkozy, is the impression it leaves with the audience they are facing — that a Franco-German condominium wants to call the shots.

Helmut Kohl used to argue that Germany had to be strong enough to stand up to Russia — but not frighten Luxembourg. Former Foreign Minister Josckha Fischer used a somewhat confusing term about Germany’s ability to take on European leadership roles by having Germany “lead from the second row” — that is, to lead without anyone noticing.

You can’t always get what you want

Managing the European decision-making process is an enormous challenge, akin to herding cats. In this case, Germany is arguing to bring the Lisbon Treaty into a position where it can more effectively deal with problems it will be facing in the future. Since Europe is not particularly well endowed with strong leadership in Brussels, it is not surprising that Berlin, as the largest and most powerful economy in Europe, can, and clearly wishes to, fill that vacuum.

But as always, Germany has to bring along the other members in the process if German interests are going to be served. The fact that Germany is a major source of funding for the EU gives it the leverage it needs to push its agenda. But the challenge remains to get sufficient support from the majority of the EU members.

Perhaps Mick Jagger said it best: “You can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.” The complex question persists, however — what is it that is needed, and by whom? It is the question at the heart of the European game. And it remains unanswered.

Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared in the October 28, 2010, AICGS Advisor.

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About Jackson Janes

Jackson Janes is executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies

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