Germany: More indispensable than ever
23 September 2013
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
After her undisputed victory in the September 22 elections, Angela Merkel is now headlong into finding new political partners with whom to govern. But regardless of who makes up the coalition, she will wield a mighty power that comes from her country’s position in Europe.
The Germans have voted. Their European partners, who allegedly awaited the elections to a new Bundestag with the nervousness of an Englishman awaiting the penalty shootout in a major international football match, can breathe out again: it is over and done with, even if the most exciting phase for both players and onlookers – the cobbling together of a new government in Berlin – is still to come.
The tension that lies in the question of who is likely to end up holding the reins of political power in the heart of Europe is not unjustified. It is bound up, after all, with the events and the experiences of the past four years, stamped by the European sovereign debt crisis, by the worry over the state of the monetary union and the row over how the euro could be permanently secured. Germany has played an important role in that, a role many would label as critical and dominant.
In the countries of the south hit hardest by the crisis, there is not a lot of enthusiasm about that role, to put it mildly. Germany has insisted on fiscal consolidation and made the acceptance of its own political preferences a condition for the granting of assistance loans – which was also a compelling prerequisite for keeping the majority of Germans, who were already up in arms mentally, from straying from the flag of the country’s policy towards the rest of Europe. The central political position of Berlin has never been more prominent since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
While Germany's economic dominance was already evident, the crisis has brought it out in even sharper relief. The tensions that arise from this gap in economic and technological achievement will be little diminished even if the problem countries do stay the course of the reforms.
The ‘reluctant hegemon’
In these years of crisis management and the shocks traversing Europe, two labels have been stuck on Germany because of its economic strength, its central geopolitical position and its policy. On the one side, there is Germany the "EU’s indispensable nation", and on the other there is Germany the "reluctant hegemon". It was the Polish Foreign Minister who called Germany “essential” and, with the style of the federal government in mind, called on the country to lead from the front. The notion of Germany as a hegemon, trying almost selflessly to wean Europe out of the crisis – meant as a reproach by some and as a challenge by others – was encouraged mostly by the country’s economic preponderance. However, a hegemon – a position comparable to what America went through in the 20th Century – is something that the Germans neither want to be, nor are capable of becoming.
The political class of Germany is indeed aware that the country must take on more responsibility for European policies and for international affairs. When it comes to security questions and military matters, all the same, a part of this class remains fixated on the German maxim of the "culture of restraint" – with which, by the way, as we saw in Libya, the great majority of the population are entirely in agreement: there is nothing wrong with the country’s security policy following the model of a "Big Switzerland". In this view, the slogan "Germans to the front" is something best left to the costume dramas.
In this imbalance between its economic might and a corresponding self-confidence in the relevant areas, which faces a characteristic argument over its security policy that regularly brings up all the things that Germany will not go along with, not much will change. Germany’s position in the centre of Europe is what gives rise to its political responsibility for Europe. That responsibility, however, is no longer easy to safeguard following the homespun mantra of “more Europe”. In the cold light of day, many Germans no longer want to grant European institutions the benefit of the doubt, and they have as little burning desire for treaty changes as most of their partners do. There’s one thing, though, that those partners can count on: Germany will continue to warn them that Europe's continued prosperity in the hyper-competitive world depends on their dynamism, their innovative strength, and therefore their competitiveness.
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Translated from the German by Anton Baer