Merkel’s Germany: Shaper or Taker of a United Europe?
By Robert Bischof
As Germany's main political parties struggle to find a formula for a new coalition agreement under Angela Merkel's leadership, the rest of Europe is testing the waters.
Some argue nothing in Europe can move forward with a Germany occupied with itself. Others relish German paralysis. Yet again others fear German dominance no matter what. That is quite a spectrum of opinion.
Where should the future European journey go?
The majority of Europe's political elites are trying to determine the proper pathway. Should there be further integration towards a United States of Europe?
Is such a move not mandated as a proper global counterweight in a world marked by the incessant rise of China, the hard-to-calculate Russians and the demise of the United States under Trump as the leader of the free world?
France's President Emmanuel Macron has definitely defined such a response as his main aim. He needs Germany to come on board, not least to guard against the centrifugal powers of populism that are rising throughout most of Europe and keen to destroy his dream.
Spreading ominous thinking
But where does Germany stand? Is it really tearing apart at the fringes? That's the suggestion of many who see the German elections in the dark light, on account of the success of the extreme left and right parties. Sections of the British press compared the right-wing AfD's march into the Bundestag to events in 1930.
Fortunately, this is far from the reality. Germany's centrist parties scored an overwhelming 78% of the vote.
Still, one cannot deny or underestimate the disruptive danger of populism. In Poland and Hungary, for example, populists are making hay out of old fears and tribal aspirations.
One underlying thread that united much political analysis throughout Europe is the fomenting of fears that is associated with the talk of a new German hegemony. In my view, that is just alarmist talk, designed to whip up the forces of populism in whatever country whose leaders think in those terms.
Others present a milder suggestion. For example, David Marsh in a recent article on The Globalist talks about a rerun of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations in the Middle Ages.
That, too, sounds ominous. However, any student of history knows that Germany's neighbours would have nothing to fear.
That Empire was never dominated from the centre. In fact, the centre was kept deliberately weak. Power resided in the leaders of the constituent parts of that empire, who elected whoever the new emperor would become. It was thus anything but an effective political entity.
If anything, that Holy Roman Empire – transferred to our era – actually resembles quite closely the European model which the UK always has in mind.
If one wants to compare the European present with the past, the first German reunification in 1871 is a more fitting example.
Driven by the onset of the industrial revolution (today's equivalent of globalization in terms of its transformative powers), first a customs union was created. Then, under strong leadership by Prussia, came monetary and political union.
But even that parallel doesn't really fit for various reasons. Anybody looking for a clearer understanding of Germany's multi-layered historic, social and cultural role in Europe should read Stephen Green's excellent book Germany the Reluctant Meister. He hits the nail on the head.
What about Angela Merkel?
Frau Merkel's Germany needs France much more than the French need the Germans. Herself long on desire, but short on actual vision, she would like nothing better than Monsieur Macron driving the European project forward. To her delight, he has taken the initiative. He is her "vision king."
True, unlike the SPD – her potential governing partner – Merkel will only be a reluctant follower when it comes to German taxpayers shouldering too much of the cost of further European integration.
But I am sure Merkel believes it is a reasonable price to pay, all the more so as she can rely on the Social Democrats to provide her sufficient political cover. They will allow her to convince most of her voters, who want the CDU to govern, that this is worth the cost.
Which leads to one big question in the European context: Will the SPD jump aboard the Merkel bandwagon once again?
The reason why I feel confident about a rerun of the last coalition is that the Social Democrats need not to fear playing second fiddle to her and falling further back in the next election. This is definitely Merkel's last term in power. In fact, it would be a surprise if she stayed the full term.
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