No one was prepared for the Greek storm when it came, least of all its ferocity. Following the marathon 17-hour negotiation over a third aid package for Greece, a number of rather dubious historical analogies were tossed around by Germany’s critics. Some called the agreement a “new Versailles” – that is, a humiliation that would someday inevitably be avenged – and others pointed to the 1951 debt agreement allowing the (West) German economy to finally regain competitiveness in the aftermath of the Second World War as an example of German hypocrisy. Meanwhile, the “Berlin Bulldozer” became yet another symbol – along with the uninspired Pickelhaube – used to epitomize a Germany that had supposedly done irreparable damage to the European project within the space of a single week.
Criticism – even harsh criticism – is a natural consequence of Germany’s increasing influence within Europe, an eventuality that some feared and others welcomed following German reunification. Germans seem to have grasped this reality well, accepting international critique with equanimity, if also with a certain amount of surprise. Despite reluctantly donning the mantle of hegemony – taking the lead in the Minsk negotiations on Ukraine, for example, and playing a prominent role in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program – Berlin still struggles to explain its policies to the European (and American) public.
However, miscommunication usually involves two parties, and it required a healthy amount of willful ignorance to see Berlin as the enemy of a greater Europe, or German policy as more focused on national interests than on European integration. A little more research and a little less urgency to jump to conclusions might have clarified a few things:
First, the “pro-European” France versus “narrow-minded” Germany stereotype. Yes, Paris does see itself as the defender of the former “soft currency countries”, a group to which France itself belongs, along with Italy, Spain, and Portugal. This is not just out of some protective instinct towards its fellow Mediterranean countries, but rather out of fear that reforms, delayed time and again since the Mitterrand government, might be pressed for by fellow Euro countries more urgently. Paris has resisted those who were pushing for these reforms for decades, afraid to ask its citizens to come to grips with its etatisme, an overgrown bureaucracy, and an inclination towards more national debt. These hurdles need to be overcome if the state is to return to European and international competitiveness.
During the negotiations, the “tread lightly with the rules” group was indeed led by France and Italy. But rather than signifying a break with German policy, Hollande’s tendency to play a good cop with Athens was fundamentally on the same page as Berlin. What many critics never understood – partially because explanations were hardly forthcoming from either Brussels or Berlin, and were insufficient when they eventually arrived – was that the agreement was not exclusively about austerity measures, but also about long-overdue reforms.
Then, the second charge: that Germany pushed for and wanted a Grexit. One thing needs to be made clear: no one knows if the Eurozone and the European project would have taken on more damage from a Grexit or from the steps taken to prevent it. Even with the third aid package now agreed, the question is still not conclusively resolved. A great deal depends on whether or not Greece takes ownership of its own reforms, and whether it treats the EU and the Eurogroup as adversaries or as allies.
Did German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble dump a poor plan on Chancellor Merkel? Schäuble’s suggestion of a Grexit was meant to defuse the Tsipras government’s attempts to blackmail the rest of the EU. It was also, however, a necessary posture to adopt. The “hard currency countries” had long ago exhausted their patience with Tsipras, and at the various summits the unspoken sentiment – especially among those countries that had already undertaken reforms of their own – was that the Greeks should just go. A temporary exit, suggested by Schäuble, the staunchest European in Germany, served as the thumbscrew that led to eventual compromise.
And, finally, the reproach that Germany’s insistence on strict adherence to the rules destroyed the European project.
If the original sin of the euro (namely that a common currency was established without the simultaneous foundation of a fiscal and political union) had been “repaired” by now, then this argument would be entirely right. It would make sense to be slightly more creative with the rules in order to restore competitiveness. In the absence of a deeper political union, however, the EU and euro area have nothing but rules holding them together. There is still no United States of Europe, bound by a sense of a common history and a shared vision for the future. Europe possesses no common language, and the only time it really feels like a community is during the European Championship football tournament and the Eurovision Song Contest – and even then, Europeans are competing against one another.
So the rules are all we’ve got. A hegemon that cares about these rules, but also takes criticism into account, can hardly be called anti-European.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.