"The Führer has requested our presence," an enraged diplomat from one of Germany's neighbors recently quipped, making a less-than-subtle allusion to its Nazi past. The comment followed attempts by Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, an EU policy adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel, to gain backing for Germany's position.
Without a doubt, it was a low blow. But Germany's government would be well advised to stop dismissing the underlying sentiment as nothing more than childish aggression. Indeed, it hasn't been the only such expression of displeasure. Criticism of Berlin policies can be heard coming from almost all of Europe's capitals.
At the moment, Germans are giving the impression that they think the rest of Europe needs the medicine they're willing to provide. But this has less to do with the content of the proposals coming out of Berlin. In fact, hardly any of Germany's EU partners needs convincing that implementing debt brakes and sanctions against budget offenders is the right thing to do. Instead, the real issue is the manner in which Berlin has cast itself in this European drama.
There's no denying that it seems rather arrogant for a senior German official to accuse Brussels of "trickery" just because the European Commission and Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, have proposed an alternative for boosting the EU's control over national budgets without risking a time-consuming and complicated process of amending treaties.
Calling a Spade a Spade
Truth be told, if anyone has been repeatedly reaching deep into their bag of tricks in recent months, it would be Merkel herself and her congenial sidekick, French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "We get the impression that individual actors have yet to realize the gravity of the situation," the German official said Wednesday. Excuse me? During their walk along the beaches of Deauville last October, it was actually Merkozy that heightened the seriousness of the situation by reaching a lackluster compromise.
The "devilish duo," as Merkel and Sarkozy have been dubbed in many EU capitals, troubled themselves much less with the future of Europe than with the issue of how they could preserve the illusion of an intact German-French partnership as Europe's engine without having to ask too much from their own populations.
At the time, for reasons relating to domestic politics, Sarkozy was opposed to the automatic sanctions for budget offenders that he and Merkel are so loudly demanding now. And Merkel only caved a bit on that point because she wanted a quid pro quo from Sarkozy, namely support for her proposal to have private creditors participate in a so-called debt "haircut" for countries on the verge of default. Now, both of those proposals have been dropped -- and at the instigation, no less, of the very institutions in Brussels that Berlin has now accused of trickery.
Good Intentions, Bad Moves
That Brussels and many of Germany's EU partners are demanding that the summit produce a decision to allow the European Central Bank to grant a banking license to the bailout funds can also be attributed to the fact that the efforts to bolster the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) haven't succeeded as well as originally planned. The firewall meant to keep the crisis from spilling over into Spain and Italy still isn't high enough. Merkel shares in the blame for this due to increased investor uncertainty over her idea of having private creditors participate in reducing the debt load of ailing nations. It was an idea that ignored the markets while only taking into account Germans' sense of what was fair. Briefly put, her intentions were good, but it was still a bad move.
Likewise, given the doubts that many EU partners have about amending the EU treaties, Berlin would do well to show some humility. There's no avoiding the fact that the constitutions in some countries require referendums on changing the EU treaties. The government leaders of these countries are justified in expecting some understanding.
Of course, Merkel constantly points to the restraints that Germany's Federal Constitutional Court has (supposedly) imposed. Or she points to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, which has put limits on her mandate for negotiating in Brussels. Still, one also wonders why she doesn't just agree to what she thinks is right in Brussels and then go back to the Bundestag to push it through. Instead, a second summit had to be convened in October just days after the first one because Merkel first wanted to secure a mandate from the Bundestag.
If Van Rompuy suggests a simple change to a protocol of the Lisbon Treaty to prevent a stalemate at the EU summit, it's not "trickery." Instead, it's the very kind of pragmatism that Merkel always enjoys attributing to her own policies.
The German government should also stop acting like it's Europe's paymaster. Granted, Germany makes what are by far the largest contributions to the ECB and the euro bailout fund. But, measured in terms of GDP -- and, by the way, on a per capita basis -- countries like Luxembourg and Slovakia are supplying an even greater share. Berlin isn't Europe's paymaster, and it needs to stop playing the taskmaster, as well.