Berlin's Lack of Vision: Europe Turns against Germany
Germany's controversial approach to fighting the euro crisis has split the European Union. Some countries are complaining about Berlin's rigid course, while others accuse Chancellor Merkel of betraying the European project. The only thing they can agree on is that the EU needs Germany as a motor if it is to survive. By SPIEGEL Staff
Cooking is an art. François Vatel, a famous chef at the court of Louis XIV, was so distraught over his inability to serve a sufficiently delicious meal to the king that he committed suicide. At last week's European Union summit in Brussels, the European leaders in attendance ruled out such risks from the start, by choosing in advance from a list of top chefs who had bid for the contract.
The menu that was served last Thursday in the European Council building on Schuman Square in Brussels had a distinctly Mediterranean flavor. It included gazpacho of red beets with king crab, sole Provencal with a tangy pea puree and, for dessert, Mallorcan pastries with passion fruit, all prepared by German Michelin-starred chef Gerhard Schwaiger, manager of the luxury restaurant "Tristan" on the Mediterranean resort island of Mallorca.
It was undoubtedly a coincidence, but the Germans also dominated the stage politically in Brussels, once again. The 26 other heads of state and government gave in to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's demand to amend the EU's Lisbon Treaty to include a permanent crisis fund, known as the stability mechanism, for the euro zone starting in 2013. Also at the chancellor's request, they inserted a passage stating that the stability mechanism is only "to be activated if indispensable to safeguard the stability of the euro area as a whole." The group also approved Germany's demand that private lenders be involved in the event of a government bankruptcy.
"We came to an agreement," a clearly pleased Merkel announced. "It was a good day for Europe." The other summit participants had no choice but to make similar statements.
This summit was supposed to send out signals of calm, levelheadedness and solidarity, if only to reassure the financial markets, but the unity was little more than a show. The conflict continued to simmer behind the scenes, especially the dispute over common euro-zone bonds. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker campaigned for the idea once again, and he was backed by many of the attendees. But Merkel was quick to object, arguing that a system of euro bonds would reward spendthrift governments and penalize disciplined countries like Germany.
In short, nothing was resolved at the summit. The more the euro crisis expands into an existential crisis for the European Union, the more critical are other member states about Germany, the largest economy on the continent and the fourth largest worldwide. "This is all about Germany, and it's all about the end of the German appetite for writing checks to the periphery of Europe," said Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson in a recent CNN interview. British historian Timothy Garton Ash complains of a lack of vision. "It is much clearer today what Germany wants from Europe than what it wants for Europe," he wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian.
Both comments imply that Germany is no longer the locomotive of European integration that it once was. In the last few decades, more and more countries joined the unification process, because they saw it as a road to common prosperity in peace and freedom.
The European community of nations, a construct that France in particular had once advocated to tame the furies of European nationalism, faces a severe test, one that reawakens old fears.
It was Jean Monnet, the son of a cognac merchant, who, in 1950, drafted the plan to bring together Western European heavy industry under the umbrella of the European Coal and Steel Community, which later turned into the European Union. In supporting the plan, Paris sought to protect itself from German economic power and political revenge. It also enabled then-German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to break through Germany's international isolation.
Monnet, who is considered a "father of Europe," wanted to guide European countries into a super-state "without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose." Apparently the fathers of the euro acted in accordance with the same philosophy later on. The new currency became a vehicle for further integration, and the EU became a monetary union -- but not an economic, let alone a political, union. As a result, the current financial crisis is too much to handle for the continent and the EU colossus.
Will the 2010 euro crisis also lead to an existential crisis for the Union? Instead of a European Germany, could the continent be faced with a German Europe instead? Is the country that has served as paymaster for so long trying to set itself up as the taskmaster of the entire community?
'A Fight against Brussels'
All of Europe's eyes are on Berlin these days, because it opposes euro bonds, insists that private lenders be involved in government bankruptcies and is discussing scenarios for an end to the current monetary union. "This way of creating taboo areas in Europe and not dealing with others' ideas is a very un-European way of dealing with European matters," Luxembourg Prime Minister Juncker complained.
Even though peace was the order of the day at the EU's Christmas summit, the criticism continues to rage. A senior official at the European Commission said angrily that "in Berlin, European policy in recent years has been treated primarily as a fight against Brussels." And Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament for the Green Party, accuses the German government of basing its EU policy exclusively on what the tabloids are saying. Although former Chancellor Helmut Kohl also promoted German interests, Cohn-Bendit says, he never lost sight of the big picture. "If Merkel had been chancellor at the time, there would have been no European unification."
Opinions differ on positions toward Berlin. There are conciliatory signals from Paris while German flags are being burned in Athens. There are biting critics like the Spaniards and skeptics like the Italians, while the Scandinavians are showing solidarity with Berlin.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH