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.
A Political Shift
But he also accuses Germany of not having properly analyzed the crisis. González believes that it is wrong to assume that Spain's problem is one of solvency, "instead of realizing that it is in fact a liquidity problem." And the austerity policy demanded by Brussels, he says, is only exacerbating the current liquidity problem, which inevitably leads to a solvency problem. The fact that the Spaniards are now forced to swallow this poison of wrongheaded austerity demands "is partly the Germans' fault."
There has been a political shift, says González, which ties in with an expression coined by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Instead of invoking a European Germany, says González, Schröder spoke of a "generation without complexes," which is typical of "the Kohl generation," which would include Merkel.
EU leaders no longer butt heads over the future of the union, says González. In the past, Kohl would drum his fingers on the table in Brussels whenever his fellow European Council members tried to avoid adopting a resolution, as they often did. "And when his blood sugar levels were down, as I suspect was the case, he would occasionally slam his fist on the table, causing the glasses to shake," González says. That sort of thing doesn't happen anymore, he says. Emotion has given way to detachment.
And because everyone avoids having to make real decisions, he says, the basic contradiction of the euro introduction still hasn't been corrected. "We wrote in 1998 that the common currency would not function without an economic and fiscal union," he says. But then it was decided by the member states that the stability pact would have to suffice.
González has reached a bitter conclusion. "The only thing that Europe's countries have in common is growing anti-Europeanism," he says. "Nationalism is dangerously on the rise, and we don't have much time left."
It was a surprise to hear a Polish politician saying that he feared German power less than German inactivity, just at the moment when Germany's dominant role was becoming obvious.
On the other hand, Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, 50, has never been a predictable politician. He became involved with the Solidarity movement early on, he fought alongside the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet occupiers, and he worked at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. In November 1989, he and historian Anne Applebaum, who would later become his wife, celebrated at the Berlin Wall. At the time, he wondered, quietly, whether Germany would soon be bursting with self-satisfaction once again, "and we Poles" would become "the victims of this self-satisfaction."
But Sikorski claims to be a realist. The statement he made in 2011, he says, was "not a Polish vote for Germany's leadership in Europe, but the recognition of reality." And for Sikorski, part of that reality is that Europe is threatened. He calls the phenomenon of renationalization in some individual member states "incredibly dangerous." But he doesn't just want to complain. "We should stop making decisions in Brussels and then, for populist reasons, go home and portray Brussels as the root of all evil," he says.
No one should be afraid of Germany, Sikorski says. "When we held the EU presidency," says Sikorski, "we saw that a democratic Germany, which is deeply rooted in the Union, needs other countries to be able to make positive decisions in both foreign and domestic policy. This is not a Germany we should have to fear."
Of course, he says, Germany has changed. More than half a century after World War II, it has "declared its independence." For Sikorski, this declaration came in the form of Germany's refusal to take part in the Iraq war. "Germany simply said no to the United States on an important geopolitical issue," he says.
Now Sikorski expects Germany to "recognize and respect the interests of its partners, as well." With undiplomatic directness, he says: "You violated the stability pact, just as the others did." This, he explains, became an excuse for other countries to emulate Germany, and for the European Commission not to impose any sanctions.
Still, he is not worried about having to listen to nothing but cost-cutting proposals from Berlin in the future. "We support fiscal responsibility," says Sikorski, noting that Germans aren't the only ones familiar with hyperinflation. The Poles, he says, experienced it in the 1980s and '90s. "But we also have to avoid the opposite approach, so as not to experience years of stagnation as a consequence of an excessively strict monetary policy," he says.
He points out that Luxembourg, Spain and Poland, Germany's new, large ally in the EU, have all asked Germany to be more flexible.
"Sure, you can have an incredibly strong currency," scoffs the Polish foreign minister, "but at the expense of the economy." If many countries cut costs to the point of intolerability, even the economists won't have all the answers. Sikorski says this is precisely why Poland introduced a debt limit, essentially before of all other countries, which lies at 60 percent of GDP and is significantly lower than in Germany today. The tool that could have been easily be used in the past -- relaxing monetary policy during a recession -- is no longer readily available to members of the euro zone.
His recommendation is no different from those made by Asselborn or González. "The interest rates on euro bonds, which would be issued by the entire euro zone, would be very close to those of German government bonds and a great deal lower than rates on Greek or Spanish bonds," he says.
However, Sikorski, like Asselborn and González, doesn't believe euro bonds will become a reality. "That would require political courage and an openness to risk, which German taxpayers aren't yet able to muster at the moment," he says.
Apparently Europe's new strongman isn't quite as strong as we have been led to believe.
REPORTED BY HANS HOYNG, JAN PUHL, CHRISTOPH SCHULT AND HELENE ZUBER