Does the EU have a German problem?

For many decades, geostrategists commented that Germany was too big to live comfortably with its neighbours but too small to control them. After the Second World War, though, and especially after the creation of the EU and NATO, it appeared that Germany had adjusted its identity, its ambitions and its behaviour to the new reality of “tamed power” (as Peter Katzenstein called it). But Germany’s place in Europe is now again being questioned.

From the right, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski calls on Germany to be more active, to use its economic resources and political capital to rescue the European project from disintegration. As he sees it, Europe is threatened more by German inaction than by German power — an interesting call from a Pole! From the left, British historian Perry Anderson berates the new Germany for dictating to its neighbours an austerity policy that it would never accept itself. Interestingly, his dismay at Germany’s role in EU decision-making is remarkably similar to what one has long heard from British eurosceptics on the right.

Two thoughts come to mind when I reflect on this debate. First, yes, people across Europe need to raise their voices against the Merkl government’s single-minded pursuit of austerity. But second, this debate needs a good dose of realism: we must consider what role Germany might be playing in Europe today *without* the EU to temper its political preferences. After all, Germany is not a European charity — it’s a state (like its 26 EU counterparts) with its own domestic politics and its own foreign policy interests.

This is not to say that Germany would revert to patterns of the 1930s-40s, but big states tend to throw their weight around, and a line of countries requesting German money for bailouts makes this all the more likely. It is not far-fetched to imagine that without the EU, German domestic politics would either make it impossible for any government in Berlin to devote any significant sums of taxpayers’ money to help other countries in financial trouble, or require that the government insist on even more draconian conditions than those imposed by the EC/ECB in its programmes for Greece, Ireland and Portugal.


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