It's a very straightforward sentence, seemingly written in stone, with no caveats, a fundamental comment on political life in Europe: "Nothing can happen in the EU without the active support of Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel." It's the conclusion reached by Britain's The Economist, at the beginning of its cover story on Germany, "The reluctant hegemon."
Several lines later, the article states that Europe "is drifting towards disaster."
What does everyone have against the politician whose high approval ratings remain unchallenged in Germany? Why are European politicians looking with trepidation to Brussels this week once again? There, at Thursday's meeting of the European Council, the leaders would approve a banking union if they could, but the union will not come about because Germany is applying the brakes.
"At this point, I see no need to transfer even more rights to the Commission in Brussels in the coming years," the chancellor said in a recent SPIEGEL interview. For Germany's neighbors, this means that if there is to be a common economic and fiscal policy to overcome the debt crisis, Berlin will be setting the guidelines.
Germany's stance on efforts to save the euro is being increasingly perceived as being unreasonable, and not just on the streets of Athens or Madrid. According to a recent poll, a majority of citizens in Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic believe that Germany is the most arrogant power in Europe. And virtually all Europeans, except the French and, of course, the Germans, feel that Germany shows the least amount of solidarity among European Union countries.
How strong is the resentment against Germany among its neighbors? Is there truly a widespread fear of German hegemony in Europe? Three prominent Europeans spoke to SPIEGEL about these issues. One comes from the small country of Luxembourg, a founding member of the EU, another from Spain, an accession state, and the third from Poland, the most successful of the new member states in Eastern Europe.
A View from Luxembourg
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, 64, is the longest-serving foreign minister in the European Union. He is a socialist and known for being outspoken. He considers it an EU basic right of sorts that the union makes it possible for even small countries to express their views without fear of repercussions.
That is precisely what Asselborn does, and even more than usual recently. He says that it bothers him to hear Berlin constantly preach: "You must, you must, you must." And this is his take on the mood at the Brussels European Council meetings: "You Germans are always only looking out for your own interests. And we supposedly do everything wrong, which is why we have to bleed."
Asselborn says that Merkel recently asked him, on the sidelines of the 150-year anniversary celebration of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD): "Well, Jean, have you said something bad about me again?" Ironically, there has never been any serious friction between the two countries, with the exception of the problem of German tax evaders parking their money in Luxembourg banks, which has now been largely resolved.
Asselborn's biggest worry is that Germans could soon begin to believe that they are better off going it alone. He says that when he reads German blogs or headlines in the tabloid newspaper Bild he sees an attitude that implies: We don't need Europe or the euro to be strong. He believes that this feeling of omnipotence is dangerous, because if that's the way Germans are beginning to think, the European idea will be finished.
Germans and Their History
He doesn't like to do it, but now he has to broach the subject of the Germans and their history, because, as Asselborn argues, therein lies the key to the current crisis. After all, he says, the European Union was not created out of pure philanthropy. It certainly played a role, but the Schuman Plan, the European Coal and Steel Community, which later developed into the European Community, was also a means to an end for the French, who wanted to exert control over Germany's industrial Ruhr region.
The Germany army invaded Luxembourg in 1940 and occupied the country for the next four years. Some 6,000 Luxembourgers fell victim to Nazi dominance. Asselborn's mother was drafted to serve in the German Reich's labor service in Berlin, while his father, a steelworker, hid from the Nazis.
Of course, says Asselborn, British and French politicians can be just as stubborn when protecting their national interests. But no one would compare them to Bismarck or Hitler, as is constantly the case with Merkel.
The Germans, says Asselborn, should not forget what they owe the European Union and the euro: that Germany is now the only large country in the euro zone still experiencing economic growth. But according to Asselborn, one should also imagine Germany as a locomotive that is no longer pulling a train. It is this image that is causing resentment in Europe.
Asselborn sees only one way out of the crisis: euro bonds. That is precisely what Merkel does not want. But why, exactly? "Just like Luxembourg, Germany pays about 1 percent interest to borrow money," says Asselborn. "What would be so objectionable about paying 2 percent?"
There is no other solution to getting Greece, Cyprus and Portugal back on their feet, Asselborn argues. Even France would suffocate without communitization of a portion of the debt, and Italy would be in worse shape than it is now. "Italy alone has 2 trillion ($2.6 trillion) in debt, and our bailout fund contains only about 700 billion," he says. But Asselborn isn't very optimistic. He doesn't believe that Merkel will change her position before the German national elections in September.
But Berlin, he says, is only making things worse by citing German taxpayers as the reason for its policy. After all, each of the provisions of the fiscal pact could have been implemented under current EU law. Why create an additional agreement? "Just to show that Germany has imposed its will on the others," he says. "It's meant to convey the sentiment that if we have to pay, it will only be under conditions that we determine." It's as if they were saying: "We are applying the German system to Europe. We are doing well, so the others will do well, too."
A Spanish Take on 'Austericide'
Felipe González, 71, has a word for the austerity demands imposed on his country: "austericide." And he leaves no doubt as to who is administering this deadly medicine to Spain. "Europe is expected to do Germany's bidding," says González.
The Socialist politician was Spain's prime minister from 1982 to 1996. One of his indelible memories is an invitation to the SPD's convention in the southwestern German city of Mannheim, a week before the death of then-dictator Francisco Franco in November 1975. At the time, German officials simply ignored bureaucratic rules and issued a one-day passport to González, who had been forced to operate underground in Spain.
González had strong relationships with three former German chancellors. He was a confidant of Willy Brandt, a friend of Helmut Schmidt and a close friend of Helmut Kohl. He was one of the few to congratulate the German chancellor only hours after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He says that Kohl later told him that he could count those who had called him that night on the fingers of one hand. And it was with Germany's help that González was able to make his country an important member of the European Community.
But now González, a tried-and-true friend of Germany, accuses the country of two things: focusing too heavily on its own short-term interests in the crisis, and -- this is even more dangerous -- changing its fundamental position on Europe.
He insists that he is not out to blame the Germans for everything. He can be just as ruthless as Merkel in listing the Spaniards' mistakes, such as the policy of deregulation that, beginning in 1998, left it up to local governments to make land available for development as they saw fit, leading to the real estate bubble. In the boom years, says González, the Spaniards practically sucked in the savings of the French, the Germans and the British, but then used this debt only for excessive consumption. "It's foolish for the borrowers to be blaming the lenders now for having given them too much credit," he says.