The problem with Germany

REUTERS/Stefanie Loos
Only a handful of overheated protesters on the streets of Athens have compared German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Hitler.

This summer, even as Europe marks the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Third Reich, it is witnessing a persistent undercurrent of debate about its Germany problem.

It’s not the same problem, of course. Only a handful of overheated protesters on the streets of Athens have compared German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Hitler. During most of the post-war era, Germany has been a strong proponent of European solidarity and a model member of the community. But in a number of ways, this new problem is distantly related to the bad, old one.

The European community is looking a bit frayed. Europe never fully emerged from the Great Recession. Despite news Tuesday of a new bailout agreement, it has a big problem with Greece, and by extension its common currency. It has a refugee problem, too. And the European Union hasn’t been up to the task of fixing them.

One reason is that European leaders are hamstrung by the same structure that helped ensure the continent’s post-war success, and has helped guarantee that there would not be a third conflict in Europe with Germany as a central player.

Saddled with a decentralized union that makes decisions by consensus, the European Union’s response to problems often seems slow and muddled. It gets slower and more muddled the more members it adds. Currently there are 28.

When the drowning of more than a thousand would-be migrants heading for Italy forced the EU to step up its presence in the Mediterranean this spring, the river of humanity predictably flowed elsewhere. Now, Greek islands are being inundated.

Many are heading for Germany, which expects an estimated 400,000 this year. Along with a record number of arrivals, Germany is witnessing record numbers of people volunteering to help – and a sharp increase in acts of vandalism or violence against refugees.

Elsewhere, France and Britain are trying to cope with thousands more who have gathered in the French port of Calais, hoping to slip across the English Channel.

Others are dealing with internal European migration by those traveling across the continent’s open borders from its poorest areas such as Kosovo and Romania.

And no one seems to be in charge.  

Which brings us to the Germany problem.

Germany’s economic strength, size and location all argue for it being a leading force – if not the leading force — in European affairs. And it has been acting like a first among equals. Who else is there? France is hanging on to its status as a force in Europe largely by sticking close to the Germans. The British have never been entirely sold on the European project. They didn’t join the monetary union and are organizing a referendum on whether they even want to stay in the EU. Italy and Spain have plenty of their own troubles. 

Yet, Germany’s position in Europe, as well as its fraught history, illustrates how tricky this is.

This Economist analysis suggests that Germany finds itself in a familiar rut: Too powerful to be just another European country, but not big enough that it can simply call the shots.

Faced with the same dilemma in years past, it has tried to force the issue a couple of times, with disastrous results. So as Germany rebuilt in the second half of the 20th century, its leaders promoted a “European Germany” rather than a “German Europe.”

Germany hasn’t wanted to be out front. The Economist recalled that West Germany’s foreign minister in the 1980s, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, argued his country had no interests other than those of the EU; it had moved beyond nationalism.

When the Berlin Wall fell, that attitude helped ease fears in the U.S., elsewhere in Europe, and in Russia about German reunification. And then Germany also gave up its beloved Deutschmark for the euro.

But the question of whether – and when, and how much — Germany would start asserting itself has always been in the background. Could it balance its own interests with those of the rest of Europe? Do its leaders have a vision for the continent that others can share?

What should Europe do about all those refugees? How generous can it be toward the Greeks?

The mood seems to have improved recently, but Germany still is insisting on more austerity even though Greeks voted against it, and the International Monetary Fund declared debt relief must be part of any solution that eventually will put Greece back on solid footing.

Given Greece’s past creativity with math, many European governments back the Germans. But Germany’s hardline approach has led some, notably Joschka Fischer, who served as foreign minister in the government prior to Merkel’s, to conclude that his country has passed a tipping point.

In the future, he says, it appears Germany will do what’s good for Germany rather than what’s good for Europe as a whole. The government’s stance toward the Greeks “announced its desire to transform the eurozone from a European project into a kind of sphere of influence,” Fischer said.

Fischer’s essay is titled: “The Return of the Ugly German.” 

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 08/14/2015 - 09:30 am.

    So Germany is fed up with the other countries in EU that are not pulling their weight. Margret Thatcher said it best- eventually with communism you run out of other people’s money. Seems the EU is running short on money and patience.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/14/2015 - 10:40 am.

    German limitations

    It looks like Germany specifically, and the EU in general, are beginning to have to deal with “post-honeymoon” issues of the sort that have made any large, populous, democratic nation-state a fragile thing. We fought a Civil War over it, and did our best to eliminate the native population before and after that conflict. “The Nine Nations of North America” seems as relevant now, given our polarized political atmosphere, as it did when I bought it in the 1970s. Much the same sort of analysis could be applied to the EU. They’re now dealing with the growing pains and hiccups that typically accompany the adolescence, if you will, of a political and economic coalition.

    It’s natural for the most powerful player to want things to go its way all the time – the U.S. has been a poster child for that sort of neighborhood bully behavior in the international community for more than a generation – but it’s also natural for the smaller and less powerful countries, just like the other kids on the playground, to resent the influence of the biggest, whether that resentment is deserved or not. Often, said resentment can be pretty easily justified, but even if it’s not rational, nothing in history suggests that humans behave rationally for anything more than brief periods. The U.S. (and other industrial nations from time to time) is a poster child for that behavioral trend, as well. Germany *is* a problem, but it also *has* problems that are interrelated to its status and position in the EU.

  3. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 08/15/2015 - 04:23 pm.

    Germany’s lack of empathy

    What troubles me is Germany’s complete lack of empathy. After destroying Greece and much of the rest of Europe, Germany had the benefit of the Marshall Plan to rebuild its economy. They now appear to feel no empathy or responsibility towards a country that they destroyed. Maybe Germany should consider embarking on it own Marshall Plan, using an amount equivalent to the grants received from this country as grants to Greece and similarly situated victims of German aggression. They can now certainly afford to do so.

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