June 5, 2010
Germany signals end of love affair with Europe
Germany is increasingly resentful of being seen as the cashpoint for its cash-strapped southern neighbour
by Ian Traynor in Brussels / guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 2 June 2010
German chancellor Angela Merkel reacts to Ronald Pofalla, chief of staff at the chancellery, during the final parliamentary debate of a €750bn eurozone rescue package in Berlin. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP
At a recent summit of European leaders in Brussels, Angela Merkel was feeling tetchy.
As the 27 government chiefs wrestled with compulsory jobs targets for the decade ahead, the German chancellor balked when asked to stick to the same employment rate as everyone else.
"Not all the member states will reach that target," she answered, according to a note of the summit made available to the Guardian. "If some don't go so far, does this mean Germany has to [go further]?" No one asked Berlin to do more than its partners. But Merkel suspected otherwise. The discussion turned to climate change targets. Again Merkel complained. Germany, she signalled, was getting a raw deal in Europe, a sentiment reinforced by senior people in her entourage such as Uwe Corsepius, her influential European adviser.
The prickliness is symptomatic of the change in how Berlin sees the EU. For 50 years, Europe has been Germany's passport to peace, prosperity and power. When Germany pursued its national interests, it did so effectively, benignly and called it "Europa".
Those days are over. The German elite feels maligned and misunderstood. In public, and much more frankly in private, senior figures talk of robustly asserting the German national interest.
"It may be new for Europe that Germany is representing its interests with new vigour," said Thomas de Maizière, the interior minister and a Merkel confidant. "But for Britain, France or Italy, this was always a matter of course."
"The mood among the Germans is quite defensive. They feel people are ganging up on them," said an EU ambassador.
A senior official in Brussels who deals regularly with Merkel added: "The love affair [with Europe] is over. When I meet German journalists, they ask 'what is the added value of Europe for Germany'."
The change – from pushing Europe forward to balking at the sacrifices Germany has to make – is a tectonic shift in the EU.
Nowhere has the new approach been more striking than in the euro crisis, where Merkel's mixture of hectoring and hesitation has shocked fellow EU leaders and generated mutual recrimination. The financial crisis exposed fundamental differences in outlook between northern and southern Europe, and conflicts of national interest between Germany and France. Egged on by both the tabloids and quality newspapers engaging in an orgy of Greece-bashing and injured outrage verging on self-pity, Berlin is slumped in surly resentment at being seen as the cashpoint for cash-strapped southern Europeans.
Merkel sees the crisis as not only about finance and economics, but as a clash of ideas, values and cultures. The new regime of penalties and punishments she is demanding for the eurozone, she told the German parliament, has to be geared to the strong and not to the weak.
The German rancour has, in turn, unleashed widespread grievances against Berlin across much of the EU. Last week the head of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, delivered an unusual public tirade against Germany, calling Merkel "naive" over her proposals to resolve the euro debacle. He blasted the German elite for its perceived failure to lead public opinion in the worst crisis to hit Europe in 20 years.
The hostility cuts both ways. Long the champion of the European commission, Berlin is now its biggest critic.
Relations between Paris and Berlin have become so sour that, according to media reports, Merkel amuses her entourage by mockingly imitating Nicolas Sarkozy, while the French president brags to his team how he has bested the German chancellor.
De Maizière shrugged off the criticism and suggested that the rest of the EU would have to learn to live with a Germany less shy about putting itself first: "We are also using new language in putting our arguments. We have to get used to this. The biggest net payer into the EU budget has to defend its interests."
Other officials privately put the case more bluntly: "If Germany pays, Germany decides."
The "new language" is evident from Merkel's recent speeches in which she has declared that the euro is in danger, that the future of the EU is at stake, that Europe is in the throes of an existential crisis.
The uncharacteristic alarmism is seen by many as a sign of weakness. Her coalition government of Christian democrats and liberals is flagging. She lost a major regional election last month. Two big figures from her party have just resigned: Horst Köhler, the German head of state, and Roland Koch, a CDU regional party baron. Her relationship with the key politician in her cabinet, Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister, is poor.
Merkel is understood to believe that she needs to take a tough "Germany first" position on the euro crisis to guard against the emergence of a new nationalism and hard right populism. There is no extreme right in Germany to compare with the xenophobia represented by parties prospering in Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France or Italy. For historical reasons the emergence of a powerful far right in Germany would be seen internationally as a problem much greater than elsewhere.
Merkel also knows that Germany, as Europe's economic powerhouse and top exporter, is the biggest beneficiary of the EU's single currency and single market.
The euro was modelled on the mark. The European Central Bank in Frankfurt was created as a clone of the Bundesbank. But the nightmare for Berlin is that the €750bn package agreed last month to save the euro means that the monetary union is no longer made in Germany.
A large country of small towns and family-run businesses, Germany saves around €10bn a year in transaction costs from selling its goods to a captive European market because of the euro. But Merkel has failed to sell the euro to the Germans.
"There's no explanation here of why the euro is good for Germany. That's why there's such uncertainty over Europe," said Klaus Barthel, an opposition Social Democrat MP. "It's much easier to get applause if you say we Germans always have to pay. National grievances are being encouraged."
"The Germans seem to think they're being penalised for success," said the EU ambassador.
Another senior diplomat involved in the weekly meetings of ambassadors in Brussels said he was always surprised at German inflexibility in the constant exercise in compromise that is modern Europe: "The Brits get the reputation for being eurosceptics. But it's the British and the French who do the real negotiating. The Germans never negotiate. It's not their habit."
Although Germany can often look to the Austrians, Finns, or Dutch for support, increasingly Angela Merkel cuts a lonely figure in Europe. "In the history of the European Union," said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform thinktank, "I've never seen Germany so isolated before."