To us Germans, two European partnerships are absolutely fundamental: Our alliances with Poland and France. The reasons are historical as well as contemporary. Both countries suffered tremendously under the Nazi regime. The mutual commitment to reconciliation laid the foundation for the peaceful agenda of the European Union after the Second World War, and again after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But the process of reconciliation is far from over – this much we can tell from contemporary debates about European leadership.
A few weeks ago, the Polish foreign minister addressed the German government with a dramatic appeal. He argued that Germany must take over the helm to steer Europe through stormy waters: The biggest economy with the strongest influence on global financial and economic discussions ought to become the spokesperson for the Eurozone. In Germany, the appeal was received with surprise. Usually, our neighbors are very sensitive to – and skeptical of – German power interests. They can still remember a time when their grandparents lived under German occupation.
In France, president Sarkozy has recommended the “German model” of running an economy and controlling the national budget. Again, we were surprised by the praise from Paris. The Franco-German partnership, established in 1945, is even deeper than our relations with Poland, but we know how attuned the French still are to German ambitions. Since Charlemagne divided his empire among his sons, the French and the Germans have been bound together in good times and bad. We might not always like each other (except during family gatherings, when sympathies prevail), but our linkage is inextricable.
Those sentiments illustrate the historical dimension of our relations with Poland and France. But there’s a contemporary dimension as well: Germans are not keen to be Europe’s leaders at the moment. We are not interested in a return to a situation where Germany towers over its neighbors. We are wary of the nationalist rhetoric that is resurging in Poland or France. Didn’t we conclude that nationalism, too, was a thing of the past? Wasn’t jingoist nationalism the reason for two devastating wars? Wasn’t it the project of the European Union to overcome the ideological component of nationalism? Today, Germans are less nationalistic than the Polish or the French. No electoral campaign in this country can be won with nationalist rhetoric – and dismissive words about our European neighbors are especially frowned upon.
That is precisely the reason why Germany is predestined to leave its mark at this decisive moment of European history. When the chairman of the German conservative party CDU, Volker Kauder, said during a parliamentary debate that “German must once again become the language of Europe,” he didn’t pick his words carefully. His party colleagues immediately scolded him, and they were correct to point out the flaws of his argument.
The French say that as an export economy, Germany stands to benefit from the crisis. True: We are proud of our economy and our achievements. But we do not think that these achievements are inherently German, like products of our gene pool and our blood. The myth of German genius is often perpetuated by others – the recent monograph by Peter Watson (titled “The German Genius”) is a case in point. To us, economic achievement is reflected in spreadsheets. Success is often the result of cooperation between German firms and their European and non-European allies, or between native Europeans and immigrants from abroad.
Today, Europe needs to cooperate to build a stable future. The Maastricht regulations (which limited the national deficit to 3 percent of GDP) were violated by Germany and France. Berlin won’t point the finger at Paris now. What matters is the future, and Germany has much to contribute to that project. The reason lies not in our blood and genes, but in the wealth of experiences and data that Germans have accumulated. What we need is a realization of existing agreements, and a determined effort to deepen European integration even further. We don’t need another Elysée Treaty. That would reduce the Franco-German friendship to its 1963 level. It would mean limiting the European Union as a whole.
But that is precisely what has been proposed: The French presidential candidate François Hollande wants to renew the 1963 Elysée Treaty. Europeans on both sides of the Rhine must resist this proposal with determination. Hollande draws on 19th century nationalism to revenge the French loss of power: Why did the “grande nation” not succeed with all its demands at recent EU summits in Brussels? Why did Sarkozy bow to pressure from Berlin? Hollande even wants to re-negotiate the European fiscal pact. Since the British refused to cooperate, Hollande seems to think that a proper great power must take a strong stand against the EU. But revenge is a thing of the past; the concept does not feature in the political toolkit of modern Europe.
Hollande is not a good European. His speech about the fiscal pact and the Elysée Treaty has led to confusion among people and markets. We look to Paris and wonder: What else will be up for grabs if Hollande wins the election? That, by the way, does not imply that we must automatically side with Nicholas Sarkozy!
The French must force François Hollande to eradicate those passages from his campaign manifesto – immediately, and without exception. He still has a long list of other proposals to bring change to France. But the European project is too serious to be turned it into a political toy – and the Franco-German friendship is too precious as well. Shame on you, Mr. Hollande, for dusting off the base instinct of nationalism and the idea of revenge.
Read more in this column Alexander Görlach: Hitler’s long shadow