There is general confusion in European capitals over German unwillingness to accept the role of savior when all it needs to do is pick up a majority of the bill for the debts of cash-strapped partners in the eurozone. It’s downright un-German. For a bit — perhaps rather a lot — of money, Germany effectively could buy its way into establishing a Fourth Reich.
Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but certainly Germany has a chance to be the great benefactor and thus the acknowledged suzerain of contemporary Europa — at least starting with the supplicant states of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and to some extent Spain. In addition there is an imposing list of others eager to relinquish their “virtue” in exchange for Germanic financial protection. Unfortunately for them, that seems to be just what Germany doesn’t seek.
The last thing Germany wants is to be disliked, but it also has no particular desire to be dominant — or hegemonic, as is the fashionable term in today’s European political society. After rising from the ashes of its crushing defeat of 1945 (and with initial aid from the Marshall Plan), Germany painstakingly has pulled itself to a level of ascendancy among its eurozone associates. Nonetheless it is not at ease with its own success. It certainly has no interest in taking on the responsibility of caring for its economically sick and needy compatriots — if that is what success means.
Some would say that Germany’s reluctance to assume the lead in ameliorating the debt crisis of its fellow EU members is just another manifestation of Germany’s carefully hidden desire for revenge for its WW2 military defeats and civilian devastation. While there may be an appearance of logic in that assumption, the problem with that theory is that there have been over two generations of Germans since that time 66 years ago. Germany’s modern history has had several chapters since then. Even the reunification of the country after the fall of the Soviet Union has meant going through a new period of national structural and psychic change.
In any case, Germany is no longer a defeated country. It is not only the most populous but economically the most powerful nation in the EU. This marks the first time in European history that such predominance has not brought with it a parallel drive for even greater power. From an analytical standpoint France is now clearly a junior partner of Germany in their shared leading role among the nations of the European Union. French President Sarkozy’s instinct for center stage may have annoyed Chancellor Angela Merkel, but she has been clever enough to not let it show — at least not too obviously.
Germany’s refusal to join in the Libyan expedition may have been a shock to Sarkozy and the foreign press, but it certainly wasn’t to the German public. Germans, and their politicians on most all sides, are happy with their economic leverage within the eurozone. Their instinctive reaction to involvement in foreign military ventures is understandably negative. Even their limited role (in relation to Germany’s assets) in Afghanistan is not pursued with any great enthusiasm. German diplomats off the record have explained that their government sees little to be gained from military adventures “operating under the guise of humanitarian actions.”
When Angela Merkel inspired the establishment of a permanent “crisis resolution mechanism” that would reinforce the eurozone, her ambition was to emphasize the importance of each country devoting itself to its own national economic strength in order ultimately to strengthen the European Union as a group. This was shocking to the functionaries of Brussels, who tend to see the bureaucratic instruments of the EU, such as the European parliament and commission, as the bulwark against parochial national interests.
Germany no longer sees its role in a united Europe merely as one among equals, if it ever actually did. For Germany the future lies in its continued economic superiority. Becoming involved in what it views as fringe regional matters outside of Germany is not part of its long-range plan nor any other plan. German ascendancy through its economic development is all that it wishes.
Of course this carries with it much consternation for France, among others, who expected the old aggressive Germany to be part of a new group dynamic within the unified European concept. The French would always be the diplomatic and political leader in their perception of future Europe. The advantage for Europe of having a strong yet benign Germany is a construct most Germans view as not including any elements of their own past imperial ambitions or anyone else’s. This view rejects France’s ever-present perception of itself as, at the very least, the political philosophical leader of the new Europe.
For Germany today insularity is its guiding principle — that and economic advantage. One thing hasn’t changed from the past: Germany wants what it wants. It just doesn’t want what it wanted before. Being the EU’s dominating economic power is quite adequate — just so long as Germany isn’t expected to pick up the tab for the others or fight in wars not immediate to its interest.