Europe’s Challenge, Germany’s Choice

Since the European Crisis exploded into full view just under two years ago, many words have been written on Europe’s troubles and many writers have offered their opinion.  Some have made full use of hindsight, claiming that the troubles now facing Europe’s single currency were always inevitable.    Others – regrettably including many from my country, the United Kingdom – have seemed to take pleasure in the difficulties that the countries of the Eurozone are experiencing.  And in particular, many across Europe have wondered whether the austerity measures insisted on by Germany and her redoubtable Chancellor, Angela Merkel, are the best way forward to solve the crisis.

But what few have commented on is the fact that it is indeed Merkel, and through her Germany, who is leading the drive to a solution. Indeed, the continent is turning to Germany for leadership as never before in the 55 years of the European Union, to such an extent that Germany is struggling to live up to the expectations of its partners, struggling to carry the burden that others are thrusting upon it.  When in his dramatic speech in Berlin last November, Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, implored Germany to act, it was not just an extraordinary statement for a Pole to make, it stood out for its rarity altogether.  Few European politicians of any nationality have articulated so clearly the new dynamics in Europe, and few even in Germany fully realise the change that the crisis has wrought in the distribution of power and responsibility, and the challenge this poses to the Federal Republic.

For what we are witnessing is the return of Germany’s existential dilemma. Ever since the first unification of Germany in 1871 the country has faced a challenge.  Germany is our continent’s most populous country and strongest economy.  It is Europe’s natural leader.  But, and here is Germany’s tragedy, it is not large enough to lead.  The United States dominates North America – it is that continent’s natural leader, and it is also large enough to lead.  Similarly China will in due course dominate Asia;  all other Asian countries will have to accept China’s stance and tailor their own policies accordingly.  But in Europe, although Germany is indeed the largest and most powerful state, it does not and cannot dominate – whenever in history it has tried to impose its will, the rest of Europe has united against it, and has proved able to pull it down.  And by 1945 the country lay in ruins.

As a result, the founding fathers of the Federal Republic had to find a different way to pursue Germany’s national interests. They drew two lessons from the first 75 years of united Germany’s existence – to fear nationalism, and to fear monetary instability – and they pledged the Federal Republic to a search for pan-European harmony and economic stability.  They considered the tools at their disposal:  of the three standard tools any sovereign state has, military power (“I will force you to do what I want”) was unthinkable, and financial power (“I will pay you to do what I want”) was in 1949 impossible, and this only left diplomatic power (“I will persuade you to do what I want”).  So the Federal Republic chose patient diplomacy, and chose moreover to work with and through France as her partner.  The EU and the euro are the crowning achievements of Germany’s choice.

This policy, which successive governments have stuck to for over 60 years, has been stunningly successful. Germany has achieved everything it could have hoped for for Europe – peace and prosperity on a scale never before experienced in our continent – and everything it could have hoped for for itself – a share of that pan-European peace and prosperity for sure, but beyond and above that it has earned full readmission into the European family of civilised nations, reunification with the eastern länder, and the respect of its friends.  None of this was guaranteed in 1949 when the Federal Republic was born, and your friends warmly applaud your achievements – yes even from England.

And now? Alas the strategy is facing a severe test.  The twin goals of pan-European harmony and economic stability are in danger of being in conflict:  to pursue monetary stability in the Eurozone is putting at risk the much-prized harmony, but to concede to others in their demands risks monetary instability.  The German government has a horror of being seen to impose German will on Europe, and an even greater fear of being forced to assume a financial burden that even Germany cannot pay.  As a result, Merkel hesitates, and can seem to be slow – there is a thin line between being deliberate and being indecisive – and in 2011 Europe paid a high price for the dithering.

But we have now reached the point where Europe no longer has the luxury of time, and actions are necessary. Germany, your friends know the choices are agonising.  We will support you.  But you must lead;  they are your choices to make.

This article first appeared (in German) in Die Welt am Sonntag.  This is the original English version