The new German question

On the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, there is not much to celebrate. True, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande stopped barking at each other. But it is in vain that we are waiting for joint European initiatives. If I am not mistaken, this anniversary marks essentially one thing: the emergence of a German Europe. But is Berlin actually ready for leadership?

Even the choice of venue is significant: the Elysée Treaty will not be celebrated this time in its original location in Paris, but in Berlin, the secret new EU capital. Ten years ago, at the last anniversary, that was not the case.

Back in 2003, Germans and French met at the Elysée Palace, celebrated the German-French Entente in the Iraq war (Berlin and Paris stood together against London and Washington) and cooperated closely on economic policy.

In the EU, Paris was still on the driver seat. Germany was the “sick man of Europe”, and France served in many ways as a role model. The former Chancellor Schröder copied eagerly on the French elite universities, on industrial policy or on the centralization of power.

And today? Merkel’s Chancellery has become the (un)secret nerve center of Europe. The entire Federal Government travels to China to sell airplanes, just as France used to do. Now, Germany is a role model, and Paris seems so be the loser.

For decades, France expressed its mark on the EU, now we are talking about a “German Europe”. The new German hegemony did not just emerge by delaying decisions in the eurocrisis, as the sociologist U. Beck put it. Nor is it simply a result of „Merkialvelism“.

No, it is a result of strategic decisions. In many areas, Berlin has learned from Paris and beaten the French with their own methods. Now, Merkel is using the Euro crisis to push through its own national agenda.

Sure, Paris is also pursuing national interests. But France needs Germany and Europe. This federal government, however, behaves as if it did not need France and (Southern) Europe any more. That’s the basic difference.

In the long run this will not go well, however. I currently see three main problems with the “German Europe”:

1. The citizens do not like it. Most Germans do not want a “German Europe” because they still feel overwhelmed by the burdens of the reunification and the Agenda 2010 (this is reflected by the famous German  “paymaster” debate).

2. The German economy is increasingly decoupling from Europe. The major corporations see the EU merely as a free trade zone, they would prefer to get rid of all its obligations (see, for example, the debate on emissions trade).

3. The actual German government is not willing and not able to cope with the new role of “leadership”. Currently, Merkel does not even manage to explain its EU policy to the citizens – by the way, when did she try for the last time?

In addition, Berlin is using double standards. For Germany, there are always exceptions (see, e.g., the exorbitant export surplus, the special rules for German Sparkassen in banking union, the golden share in VW), while in the EU Berlin preaches a strict governance and a liberal „Ordnungspolitik“. This encounters – legitimate – opposition in Paris.

Now, the big question is whether Germany will turn to France once again. I do not think that this could happen before the German elections. But once reelected, Merkel might well agree with Hollande to loosen the austerity in Europe.

Just as good is possible, however, that Berlin forges a new alliance with London and Warsaw – or tries a policy of “divide and rule”. I’m not even sure whether the 60th Anniversary of the Elysée Treaty will be celebrated …

(This is a translation of my blog post “Deutsches Europa”. The original version is here.)

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