We Germans like to see ourselves as Europe’s rescue patrol. But the more influential Germany becomes and the more responsibility it shoulders, the stronger the headwind it encounters. Germany is facing a tough path ahead: it must be willing to contribute to the European sacrifice without reaping any sympathies in return. Germany is Europe’s scapegoat.
In late 2011, Poland’s foreign minister Radoslav Sikorski said something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Polish politician: “I am less scared of German power than I am scared of German inactivity.” This summer, the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt opined: “The murder of six million Jews remains such a strong ballast on the unconscious of the peoples of Europe that it precludes German leadership even today.” Both men know what they are talking about, yet they contradict each other. Can we reconcile their views?
When the realist looks out into the world, he searches for balance. Not a desire for harmony drives his outlook, but his conviction that tensions will rise unless the power dynamics between states are carefully kept in balance. The logic of the Cold War hasn’t lost its persuasiveness just because the Iron Curtain collapsed, and we must discuss what kind of balance remains important today. One thing seems certain: when the balance of power shifts in a region, political consequences are unavoidable.
In Europe, power relations have shifted since the beginning of the economic crisis, and they continue to shift as the debt crisis drags on. Europe is losing its balance. At first sight, Germany finds itself in a rather comfortable position: we are less affected by the crisis than many of our neighbors and experience a relative increase in economic potency, wealth, and power.
Sikorski’s demand for German leadership thus makes sense. The strongest member of the party must take the helm; Germany must pick up the baton. But as Schmidt reminds us, Germany cannot act as it should. Its European neighbors don’t want to be led from Berlin.
The statements of the two politicians thus illustrate Germany’s bind: some countries – especially the nations of southern Europe: Spain, Italy, and Greece – face harsh financial and fiscal cuts. Germany’s power increases as their influence dwindles. Concerns are rising among the governments of the austerity-stricken members of the Eurozone.
But the true danger is to be found in domestic politics. For years, politicians in Europe have been playing a risky game that has always been rigged against their common union: positive changes were claimed by policy-makers (in Germany, too) as their own achievements while the EU was held responsible for everything that went bad. Today, the scapegoat role is increasingly held by Germany. When European heads of state return home from their summits, they hand out little policy carrots while declaring (to their own voters) that they are powerless to resist the stick-wielding Germans.
In last week’s edition of “Der Spiegel,” Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti warned against “rising resentments” in his home country: against the Euro, against Germany, and against chancellor Merkel. She must shoulder much of current criticism – the Italian newspaper “Il Giornale” just added another chapter to the long list of Hitler references. Many countries have taken to blaming Mrs. Merkel for everything they disagree with.
Populists around Europe are breathing down our necks. The longer the crisis continues, the bigger the imbalance between Germany and its neighbors will grow, and the easier it will be to stoke fears and prejudices. Once you’ve been cast as the scapegoat, it’s hard to escape that role.
Germany isn’t free of populism either. Markus Söder, finance minister from the Bavarian state government, recently made headlines with the ludicrous demand that Germany must make an example of Greece. He doesn’t specify what that might look like, but his words reveal a rather rudimentary and questionable understanding of German history and democracy.
Let’s hope that Söder has listened to the warning words of Chancellor Schmidt: we cannot discount the historical dimension of current debates. Whether we like it or not, Germany continues to shoulder the burden of its past. Schmidt’s criticism is that Chancellor Merkel lacks a finely tuned awareness for such latent sentiments, and the polls seem to reflect that: while Merkel continues to score high on domestic approval ratings, she is becoming increasingly unpopular throughout Europe. She has made mistakes, among them her open support for the former French president Sarkozy. A bit of historical awareness could have helped her avoid the faux-pas: never before has a German chancellor meddled openly with French electoral politics.
The consequence: Mrs. Merkel is now alone at Europe’s helm, or at least she is perceived that way. When Sarkozy was still in power, she could rely on commiserating photo ops, but François Hollande or Mario Monti are unwilling to play along. The Franco-German “Merkozy” duo was quickly replaced by Merkel, who now has the spotlight (and the burden) all to herself. Her hard stance – primarily motived by domestic electoral concerns – significantly contributes to that.
Germany increasingly finds itself along on the European stage, surrounded by other countries who point their fingers at Mrs. Merkel. It’s unlikely that the German position will change in the near future, regardless of what happens to the Eurozone. And again, we’ve arrived at the German predicament: when we sacrifice something for the good of Europe, other states will claim the successes as their own. When we draw lines in the sand and issue demands, populists and demagogues raise their voices against us.
We must foremost resist the tendency to retreat to the politics of resentment ourselves. It’s better to shrug and refuse to listen to vocal populists like Mr. Söder. The best we can hope for is to retain our role as the disliked (or even hated) savior of Europe.