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.”