It was intended to be a pleasant evening. At their meeting in the German government's guesthouse in Meseberg near Berlin last Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso had set aside plenty of time to resolve their dispute on how to save the euro. The comfortable fireplace room had been prepared, with sparkling wine and beer ready to be served. Only their closest advisers were allowed to attend.
Barroso began with a correction. The Portuguese politician said reports that he disagreed with the chancellor on the euro rescue fund had been incorrect. He said that he had been misunderstood. Although Merkel had a different impression, she let the matter rest.
She was interested in a productive atmosphere for talks because she wanted to win over Barroso for a far greater plan. It is a plan that has evolved slowly -- Merkel had to warm up to the idea herself -- and she knows that it won't appeal to the head of the Commission. Dubbed the "pact for competitiveness," the plan that Merkel has in mind could permanently change the structure of the European Union.
The idea, which the chancellor conveyed to her guest in English, calls for closer cooperation among the member states of the euro zone. It would entail more closely harmonizing their financial, economic and social policies. Merkel hopes that this would prevent the economies of the euro countries from diverging as much as they have over the past few years. If fully adopted, it would take European cooperation to a whole new level.
A New Merkel
Above all, it would mark the emergence of a new German chancellor. Up until now, Merkel has shown herself to be exceedingly hesitant in dealing with the euro crisis. After all, she has never been a fully committed supporter of the European project. During her early life in communist East Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel was mainly interested in West Germany and the US, which she regarded with a sense of longing. Yet she didn't lend nearly as much attention to the region that lay between these two countries.
As chancellor, Merkel saw it as her duty to protect Germany's coffers. When the financial crisis erupted in September 2008, she said, during a flight to St. Petersburg, that the Germans would not bail out ailing Irish banks. That set the tone for her approach to crisis management at the time, and also during the current euro crisis. She has had reservations about aid for Greece and hesitations with regard to the European euro rescue fund. When it comes to safeguarding the European common currency, Merkel has always seemed like a politician who reacts, not one who acts.
But now she intends to fundamentally change things. With her plan, the chancellor wants to do more than just go on the offensive politically. She has also set out to rectify the weakness that the former long-serving Commission President Jacques Delors considers a basic "design flaw" in the monetary union: Although there is a common currency in Europe, there is no corresponding common economic policy.
The Merkel pact aims to remedy this shortcoming, at least in part. According to the plan, the euro-zone countries would coordinate their economic policies far more closely in the future, thus playing a leadership role within the entire EU. What Merkel has in mind is essentially nothing other than the "two-speed Europe" that her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, similarly proposed many years ago.
Merkel has made a political U-turn that is virtually as dramatic as the change in course made by her predecessor in office, Gerhard Schröder, when he introduced his radical -- and hugely unpopular -- "Agenda 2010" reforms of the labor market and welfare system. Just as Schröder, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), abandoned what he saw as the outmoded social policy positions of the SPD, Merkel has discarded a number of her fundamental convictions about Europe.
Until recently, the chancellor had strictly opposed any closer cooperation among the 17 countries in the euro zone. She wanted to include all 27 EU member states. Her concern was that this would otherwise lead to a union within the Union. Her fear was that countries that are not members of the euro club, such as Poland, could be sidelined.
As recently as May 2009, Merkel said in a speech given at the Humboldt University in Berlin that she would oppose any "divisions in Europe." She went on to say that she was also against "often ill-conceived demands for more intensive coordination of economic policies" in the euro zone.
Now it's a different story altogether. Now Merkel wants to make the center of the current crisis, the euro zone, into the focus of efforts to combat the common currency's woes. That notwithstanding, the pact is intended to be open to all EU countries, not just the members of the euro zone. That's something which is important for Merkel.
Her plan is ready, but there is still discussion about how to make it reality. Barroso told Merkel during last week's meeting in Meseberg that the European Commission wants to direct the process. Merkel, on the other hand, claims this role for herself and the other heads of state and government. There was reportedly a heated discussion concerning this point. "I will not allow the European Commission to be sidelined," Barroso told his aides afterwards. At least Merkel assured him in Meseberg that the Commission would oversee progress toward the plan's goals in the individual countries. She also said that he could attend meetings when the leaders of the euro-zone countries convene in the future.
Plan to Be Presented to EU Leaders This Week
The schedule for the chancellor's plan is as follows: Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will present the rough outlines of the plan at the EU summit in Brussels this Friday. The proposal is not on the official agenda. The 27 heads of state and government will confidentially and informally discuss the issue over lunch. Then it will primarily be up to Germany and France to hammer out the details of the plan. But other governments will also participate in the process. The plan is to be discussed in detail at the next regularly scheduled EU summit in late March. The chancellor, however, is also considering calling a special summit before then. Sarkozy is Merkel's most important partner on this issue.
The French president has long advocated intensifying cooperation among euro countries. Although he has failed to push through his pet idea of a central bank that would be independent of political control, the so-called competitiveness pact contains many elements of the "economic government" that France has wanted for so long.
In addition to being aimed at EU players, the plan is designed to send a signal to the financial markets. Interest rates for debt-ridden euro countries have been rising for months because investors don't believe that Europe can agree to a joint economic policy. Now this document, which was prepared by the Europe experts in the Chancellery and sent by e-mail to the Foreign, Finance and Economics Ministries (marked high priority), promises a fundamental improvement. According to the paper, the besieged countries have little chance of paying back their debts over the long term if they "do not improve their competitiveness and achieve a higher rate of growth."
To overcome investor mistrust, the authors write that, as well as a stricter stability and growth pact, "financial, economic and social policies need to be more closely coordinated at a national level." Each country has to "adhere to the respective best practices to improve the overall performance of the euro zone."
The improvements made by member countries in these respects are to be assessed using "objective targets" based on verifiable indicators. If all goes well, this will allow the euro countries to ensure that their wage costs do not diverge too strongly in the future, that funding for pension systems remains stable in the long term and that sufficient investments are made for the future. According to the paper, the important thing is to have goals that have "a close objective connection to the issues of competitiveness, growth and sound fiscal policy."
In order to achieve these objectives as quickly as possible, Merkel is seeking support for an immediate program "that will be implemented on the national level within 12 months" (see graphic). This would entail the member countries adapting "the retirement age to demographic trends" and introducing financial policy rules that are modeled after Germany's so-called debt brake (an amendment to Germany's constitution that requires the government to virtually eliminate the structural deficit by 2016). Furthermore, within one year the countries would have to mutually recognize each other's educational and professional qualifications, as well as introducing a standardized means of assessing corporate tax to avoid so-called tax dumping (i.e. when countries try to attract companies by having an artificially low tax rate).
The report goes on to say that the euro countries should commit to goals that are "more ambitious and more binding" than those already agreed upon among the 27 EU members. And to ensure that the member countries deliver on their pledges, sanctions will not be ruled out.
On this point, however, the paper remains rather vague. Nonetheless, the issue of sanctions is key to the whole endeavor. After all, the competitiveness pact is not the first attempt to harmonize economic and financial policies on the continent. Ever since European leaders agreed nearly 20 years ago to create a common currency, they have been trying to coordinate their economic policies. So far, their efforts have been in vain.
Nothing demonstrates this as clearly as the Stability and Growth Pact, which the EU countries agreed to in the mid-1990s. The agreement was designed to ensure that national governments did not amass too many debts. But when Berlin and Paris violated the deficit criteria in 2003, they did not submit to the agreed-upon sanctions. Instead, the two most powerful countries in the EU managed to have the Stability Pact suspended. Thanks to their efforts, it was subsequently watered down.
The story of the so-called Lisbon Strategy was just as disappointing. In 2000, EU leaders meeting in the Portuguese capital resolved to make Europe the world's most competitive economic region. The lofty intention was never implemented, however, because the member states were unwilling to introduce the required reforms.
Now Merkel is making a new attempt to coordinate the policies of the member states. The pact is designed to complement the so-called "European semester," which the 27 EU leaders already agreed on last September. The process requires that all draft budgets by EU countries be approved by Brussels in the future.
But this alone is not enough to effectively stabilize the euro, at least according to Merkel's analysis of the situation. There is also a need for coordinated tax, wage and social policies that the national states must agree to.
If the chancellor manages to push through her plan, it would send a strong signal that the Europeans are really prepared to pursue a common approach, each in their own area of responsibility. The Commission would ensure that national governments keep their finances in order. The Eurogroup would see to it that its members remain competitive on the global level.
That's the theory. The problem is that Merkel and her strategists face numerous problems in practice. When the experts in the European capitals examine the proposals from Berlin during the coming days, they will raise the questions that often plague European visions: Are the proposals capable of winning majority support? How binding are the agreements? And last but not least: Who will ensure that they are adhered to?
It is primarily the answer to the last question that remains totally unclear. Sources in the German government argue that EU leaders would adhere to the agreed objectives to avoid losing face in front of their colleagues. The experts say that peer pressure would ensure that the pact is a success.
That, to put it bluntly, is wishful thinking. If push comes to shove, national leaders would rather keep their own voters happy than gratify their colleagues in Europe. On the domestic front, it won't be easy to push through the proposals included in the pact.
Even getting EU member states to mutually recognize each others' professional qualifications within the stated timeframe of 12 months would be a significant challenge. But the goal of raising the retirement age within the same period appears totally unrealistic. The heated debates on raising the retirement age in Germany and other countries demonstrated that such a move is hardly possible without political turmoil.
Overly Broad Targets
Things don't look any better on other fronts. Merkel's plan to prevent tax dumping is aimed at countries like Ireland, where the corporate tax rate is a mere 12.5 percent. The question is where legitimate tax competition ends and dumping begins.
According to sources in the German government, these difficulties mean that, on most of the issues involved, no concrete targets will be agreed upon. Instead, there will be a target range for countries to aim at. Since all countries have to agree on these goals, there is a danger that these target ranges will be extremely broad, which would render them virtually ineffective. There are already proposals for how to proceed should the euro-zone countries be unable to agree on common standards. In this case, according to French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, there would have to be an arbitration process within the euro zone.
Merkel's plan totally fails to address another problem: There is no strategy for how to bolster Europe's shaky banks. Yet it is precisely in this area that the European Commission feels that member states have a responsibility to act. "Wherever necessary, the member states will have to recapitalize, restructure or liquidate banks," reads a strategy paper.
Nevertheless, the chancellor has a good chance of pushing through her plan in Brussels. After all, she has a bargaining chip. Germany will only agree to additional guarantees for the euro rescue fund -- as the Commission and other parties have called for -- if its partners approve its competitiveness pact. The Chancellery estimates that 23 EU countries will go along with it. Denmark and Sweden are said to be on the fence, while the UK and the Czech Republic are reportedly reluctant.
Resistance in Berlin
There may actually be greater resistance to the plan in Berlin than in Brussels. Merkel, who heads the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), still has to win support for her proposals from her coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). Last Wednesday, the chancellor discussed the plan with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle (FDP) and Economy Minister Rainer Brüderle (FDP). The two FDP politicians appeared reserved.
In principle, they have nothing against closer cooperation within the euro zone, but the campaign against tax dumping is problematic for the FDP. After all, they have been singing the praises of low corporate taxes for years. It certainly wouldn't be easy for Westerwelle to explain to his already disappointed supporters that he now intends to oppose low tax rates for companies. As it is, there is already growing euroskepticism within the FDP's parliamentary group. The week before last, FDP parliamentarians agreed to take a tough stance on the euro rescue fund. The liberals are not prepared to approve further amendments to the fund.
The issue of economic government is just as unpopular. "The FDP doesn't want an economic government, and it won't approve it in the Bundestag," says the party's spokesman on financial issues in the German parliament, Frank Schäffler. "It would not be acceptable for us to be liable (for other countries) and yet have no influence on (those countries') spending," says Volker Wissing, an FDP politician who is the chairman of the Bundestag's finance committee.
Since a deep sense of euroskepticism is shared by many people in the FDP, Merkel is primarily pinning her hopes on there being other opinions within the ranks of the liberals, for example, among FDP representatives in the European Parliament. An internal paper reads that the euro requires "greater harmonization and coordination of national economic and financial policies."
FDP euroskeptics are also under pressure because German industry supports the Merkel plan. "There is no question that we need closer cooperation in the economic sector," says Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann. "Everything that leads to better coordination makes sense," says Paul Achleitner, who is chief financial officer at the insurance giant Allianz, while Nikolaus von Bomhard, CEO of leading reinsurance company Munich Re, argues that one shouldn't allow oneself to be deterred by "shock words" like economic government.
Power Struggle with France
It remains to be seen, however, whether the competitiveness pact will actually lead to better coordination. It is also very possible that the Germans are about to enter into a prolonged conflict with France. Merkel's plan touches on more than just the economic health of the euro-zone countries. It also concerns the issue of how power is divided between Paris and Berlin.
On a number of occasions, Sarkozy has already tried to create structures within the EU that increase France's political weight. For instance, two-and-a-half years ago he campaigned to establish a "Mediterranean Union" -- an organization with its own institutions, where France would have assumed the leading role. The plan was thwarted thanks to Merkel's veto.
To foil France's ambitions, Merkel long opposed a special role for the euro zone within the broader European Union. But since the onset of the financial crisis, Germany's resistance has been crumbling. At first, Berlin was generally opposed to special summits for the euro-zone countries. Later, the German government agreed to meetings of national leaders in the event of particularly sensitive issues.
Now such summits will be held on a regular basis. Just how often this will occur is something that Merkel and Sarkozy will have to agree to over the coming months. The French president would prefer to have the euro-zone leaders reach agreements ahead of each EU summit. Then the 27 members of the broader EU would, in principle, merely rubber stamp what the 17 euro-zone members had already decided.
Getting a Bigger Say
That would appeal to Sarkozy, as France would have more influence within this small group. EU member states like Poland, the UK and Sweden, which are more closely aligned with Germany on important economic and financial policy questions, would be excluded, as they don't have the euro.
Working within the smaller group would also make it easier for the French to address issues where their views have differed from the Germans for many years, for example, on topics such as trade and industrial policy.
But these are issues that actually concern every member of the EU. Indeed, Merkel has been pushing for every EU member to be allowed to attend the euro summits. She also wants to prevent these events from being held too often. Ideally, she would like the euro meetings to take place after the regular EU summits. Then the euro-zone countries could not make any pre-arrangements that would affect the entire Union.
The European Commission also has its objections. Although the Eurocrats in Brussels are pleased with Merkel's promise to allow them to oversee the decisions of the Eurogroup, they are afraid that they could lose influence over economic policy in the future voting process. "The Commission has the best expertise to guarantee economic and fiscal surveillance," says Marco Buti, the European Commission's director-general for economic and financial affairs. "Moving it to an inter-governmental level would be a mistake."
'We Will Defend the Euro'
But Merkel is not about to let such objections put the brakes on her plan. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last Friday, she made a plug for her plan in front of top business and political leaders from around the world. In order to protect the euro, new approaches must be adopted, she said. Merkel added that nothing less than Europe's position in the world is at stake.
The often hesitant chancellor appeared highly determined. She said the euro was "the embodiment of Europe today." Then she even allowed herself an uncharacteristic touch of pathos. "We will defend the euro," she said. "There can be no doubt about it."
PETER MÜLLER, RALF NEUKIRCH, CHRISTIAN REIERMANN, MICHAEL SAUGA, CHRISTOPH SCHULT, ANNE SEITH