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Merkel’s European Message

Why must Germany step up its game if Europe is to survive its crisis?

November 1, 2011

Why must Germany step up its game if Europe is to survive its crisis?

The results of the recent Brussels summit 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 Angela Merkel, the German 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 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 U.S. president, the role of the U.S. Congress is equally on the minds of those dealing with Washington. So it is with Germany — 65 years after a war, when Germany looked very different than it does today.

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 Deutschmark for the euro.

There have been comments — mostly out of London — that Germany may have lost World War II, but was now eager to recover its hegemonic control of Europe with its strong economy. Conspiracy theories never die, but in this instance, as is so often the case, they reflect a serious feeling of inadequacy on the part of the person laying out the theory.

Germany, especially a united Germany, was able to demonstrate that its economic model — export power, industry-labor relations, the precision product quality — was more successful than that of most others.

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 that of most large countries in Europe. Meanwhile, unemployment in France is nearing 10%, with some shaky economic trends worrying many in the ratings branch.

In that context, 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 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 World War II.

So what is a German chancellor to do when walking among, and on, these various tight ropes? 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.

What came out of the late October 2011 Brussels summit was 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 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.

Ten new members in Eastern Europe seeking to play their own role in a larger Union. Great Britain still holding itself aloof from the euro, seeking to stabilize a shaky new government by letting its own nationalist sentiment play on populist anti-European waves. And a weakened France and Italy held hostage by their own inept political leadership.

With so much fragility among Europe’s major players, Germany has to step up its game if Europe is to survive the most critical crisis it has ever faced.

Merkel did precisely that. She will have to do it many more times as long as she is chancellor — presumably for another two years if her governing coalition holds together until the next scheduled elections in 2013.

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 U.S. slogan “e Pluribus Unum” certainly did not eliminate the diversity within 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.

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.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from Mr. Janes’ recent essay in the October 28, 2011, AICGS Advisor. Reprinted with the permission of the author.


Let's heed Thomas Mann's call for "a European Germany, not a German Europe."

For Germany to play the hiding hegemon in Europe is not going to work as it might have in the past.

Merkel's Germany did not cause the problems Europe faces alone. That was a joint European endeavor.

The U.S. slogan "e Pluribus Unum" certainly did not eliminate the diversity within the American Republic.