American style Germany
14 September 2012
We all know that Angela Merkel is the world’s most powerful woman, and that her country is the most powerful state in the European Union, without which nothing is possible, particularly when it comes to helping countries in difficulty. It’s for this reason that the main event this week, even more important than the speech delivered by José Manuel Barroso, was the German constitutional court ruling on the European rescue fund.
Without a “Yes” from the judges in Karlsruhe, there was to be no salvation for Greece, Spain and Italy. In other words the fate of 117 million Europeans depended on a decision by eight magistrates in a country other than theirs, by virtue of a process that most of them were ignorant of. It was a development informed by a major change in Germany both in terms of the country’s political mechanisms and its relationship with the rest of the world – a change that can be described as American.
In much the same way that American action or inaction has often had consequences for progress elsewhere in the world, Europe today functions mostly according to the pace set by Berlin. And much like the American president, who is often hindered by a Congress where voting is determined by purely national – even local – interests, and pressure from lobbies, the German Chancellor has to contend with a Bundestag whose members are answerable to the interests of Germany’s federal regions and political parties as well as economic groups. The Bavarian MP has become for Europe what the Midwestern congressmen is for the world – a politician whose choices extend well beyond the country’s borders, but whose Weltanschauung, his worldview, is increasingly blinkered, as his irritation with the supposed inadequacies of other Europeans increases.
Finally, in the same way that the United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter in political and cultural conflicts (on issues such as the welfare, firearms and abortion), the court in Karlsruhe has emerged as a justice of the peace with a brief to settle conflicts between divergent influences in federal Germany. This is hardly surprising in the homeland of Jürgen Habermas, the theorist of constitutional patriotism. But it does raise the issue of a paradox that extends beyond the borders of Germany.
It was in the name of democracy that the judges were asked to rule in a political debate, because the plaintiffs believed that the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) trampled over the sovereignty of parliament – the people’s representative – in budgetary matters. And in an acknowledgement of this right, the ruling has once again put the ball in the politicians’ court, because it stipulates that the Bundestag must conduct a further vote to endorse any increase to the ESM. On the crucial question of power of decision and democratic control in Europe, the German response is thus determined by a precarious balance between judges and elected representatives, which by default excludes other Europeans. But they nonetheless deserve some credit for bringing the debate to a conclusion.
Now it is for the entire community of European representatives and leaders to address the challenge and establish a proper system to ensure a balance of powers and democratic control for the European Union. If not Germany will become what the United States sometimes is, both a reluctant, inward-looking leader, and the scapegoat of our own powerlessness.