German Chancellor Angela Merkel is always good for a little variety whenever European leaders pose for their traditional group photo at summits. Sometimes she wears a blue blazer. At other times she is in beige. Sometimes the chancellor stands next to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, while at other times she positions herself next to Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.
But one thing has consistently been the same recently: Merkel stands in the middle. To some extent, the protocol reflects German national policy and the chancellor's favorite position, namely that the Germans should not be standing on the sidelines in Europe.
Merkel will position herself in the middle again at this week's summit of EU leaders in Brussels, but this time image and reality are hardly compatible. A deep divide runs through Europe, and Merkel is more isolated than ever within the circle of the EU's 27 heads of state and government.
The chancellor sees herself confronted with the charge that she has focused exclusively on national interests in the euro crisis. Last week, in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Juncker accused Merkel of "un-European behavior" and "simplistic thinking."
The premier of the Grand Duchy is not alone in his criticism. Many European leaders resent Merkel for the fact that Germany has recently been less flexible and not as enthusiastic about the EU as it used to be. Germany's understandable desire to not become Europe's paymaster doesn't give it the right to be its taskmaster, say critics from Lisbon to Helsinki.
Making the Markets Nervous
Ironically, Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble have been everything but successful in their efforts to reform the monetary union. To save the euro, they wanted to establish a new procedure to deal with debt crises in the euro zone. But nothing will come of it. The decisions European leaders plan to make this week will have little to do with Berlin's original plans.
There are two reasons for the Germans' lack of success and loss of support. Merkel and Schäuble are depending too heavily on solidarity with France. They are seeking to align themselves with Germany's most important neighbor, as they did last Friday at the German-French summit in the southwestern German city of Freiburg, while ignoring the fact that Paris mainly pursues its national interests with little regard for sensitivities east of the Rhine.
An even more serious problem is that Merkel and Schäuble often disagree. The two politicians send out very different signals in Brussels, which makes their partners -- and the financial markets -- nervous. Worse yet, it weakens the German negotiating position, because the chancellor and the finance minister often make themselves vulnerable to being played off against each other.
The last two Christian Democratic cabinet ministers from the era of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl hold completely different views on European unity. Merkel, a native of the former East Germany, sees the EU from a purely rational point of view. She feels that it is indispensible, because the best way to promote German economic interests in the age of globalization is within the European framework. She has no affinity for the emotional side of European unity.
'I'm Pleased about the Crisis'
For Schäuble, however, European unity is a matter close to his heart. He likes to be seen as the last old-school European. Because of his past, he feels that Germany has a constant obligation to champion closer ties among European countries.
For Schäuble, almost no price is too high for the noble goal of a United States of Europe. He even manages to see a silver lining in Europe's debt crisis. "During crises, we move forward," he said recently to a German and French audience, "which is why I'm pleased about the crisis."
Merkel, on the other hand, felt compelled last week, once again, to play the naysayer. This was partly the doing of her finance minister, of all people.