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The iron at the heart of Germany
KVUE - ABC
For the past century and a half, European history has revolved around
the "German question." That is, how to deal with a powerful and
assertive Germany at the heart of the continent. Germany originated from
fragmentation: It was repeatedly defeated, invaded and occupied. And yet
it continually reemerged, each time forcing its neighbors to deal with
the same conundrum. 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall,
Europeans are once again dealing with a powerful Germany and wondering
what it will do next.
Germany's location at the center of the north European plain ensures
that it is both rich and insecure. The lack of natural borders to the
east and the west maintain a situation of permanent neighborly distrust.
Its export-driven economy dominates some of Europe's most navigable
rivers, arteries that feed the world's fourth largest industrial
complex. Germany's unification in 1871 changed the way Europe worked by
unifying hundreds of previously fragmented political entities into an
economic and military superpower. The European response to Germany's
unification was a series of wars that led to the country once more
becoming divided and occupied by foreigners.
Europe's reaction to Germany's second unification almost 120 years later
was quite different: Instead of death and destruction, the Europeans
decided to try integration and peace. The fall of the Berlin Wall in
1989 led to the creation of the European Union and the eurozone, both of
which were born out of hope and fear. West Germany had been a peaceful
NATO member since the mid-1950s, but concerns about a strong and unified
Germany were as palpable in 1990 as they were in 1870. France and the
United Kingdom opposed German unification, with British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher famously saying in 1989, "We defeated the Germans
twice! And now they're back!" France saw the creation of the euro as a
way to integrate the Franco-German economies in such a way that
cooperation would be inevitable. If Germany could not be stopped, then
at least it would have to be contained, with its power diluted into
wider European structures and institutions.
The Burden of Leadership
The irony behind the attempts to create a more European Germany is that,
25 years later, the continent is debating whether Berlin is trying to
build a more German Europe. The European economic crisis deepened the
differences between Germany and its neighbors, France in particular.
Paris' dream of a co-leadership of Europe was substantially harmed by
the stagnating French economy. And so Germany is once again the main
economic and political power in Europe. But Berlin doesn't want to lead
Europe -- or at least it doesn't want to do it in such a way that would
worry its neighbors. Germany is often described as a "reluctant
hegemon," a powerful country that could lead Europe to a brighter future
but simply chooses not to. Berlin faces opposition when it leads and is
criticized when it doesn't.
Germany's reluctance to fully embrace its role in Europe has historic
roots. The memories of Nazism are still too fresh, and many Germans
simply do not want their country to lead Europe. They would rather have
a prosperous yet politically shy country -- something similar to Austria
or Switzerland. The Germans feel proud and afraid of what they have
achieved since 1989. They find themselves at the center of Europe once
again and dread what could happen next. This does not mean that Germany
lacks an aggressive foreign policy, but it is mostly based on the
protection of its domestic welfare -- in other words, making sure that
protecting its export markets and keeping the European Union alive does
not result in Germany footing the bill.
Germany is trapped in a contradiction. On the one hand, it relies on its
export market to maintain social cohesion at home. Almost half of
Germany's exports go to its neighbors, explaining why Berlin benefitted
substantially from the creation of the eurozone -- a system that traps
some of Germany's main customers within the same currency union. But on
the other hand, Germany also needs to protect its national welfare,
which explains why Berlin used the economic crisis to pressure eurozone
members to apply deep structural reforms. The problem is that, in many
cases, this pressure led to recession and unemployment, which weakened
support for Germany as Europe's potential leader.
At the heart of the European Union there is a contradiction between a
country that needs to export to survive and countries that need to
protect their economies to prosper. Germany may be a reluctant hegemon,
but it also tries to lead countries that are unwilling or unable to
follow. One of the many consequences of the European crisis is that
countries have decided to selectively ignore or even violate the rules
of the eurozone to pursue their own national strategies. The European
Union is basically a contract, and contracts can be broken if they no
longer work for the parties involved. The European Union was built on
the promise of peace and prosperity. It still delivers on the former,
but there are serious questions about the latter.
Interestingly, the economic crisis also affected the way some Germans
see the European Union, and the country is beginning to manifest early
signs of Euroskepticism. The slow but steady rise in conservative forces
that want to stop financial assistance to countries in distress -- and
even leave the euro -- is an early signal of this trend. From the
beginning of the crisis, the German government opted to both criticize
countries in southern Europe in addition to providing assistance to
them. This strategy proved successful from an electoral point of view
but did not fundamentally change the way Europe works. The same problems
simply keep coming back.
Germany's neighbors are approaching the point where they will be forced
to make tough choices. They could accept to live under the supervision
of a country that is bigger, more productive and more assertive than the
rest, or they could return to some previous form of cooperation that
does not necessarily involve giving up national sovereignty. Because of
the recent rise in nationalism in Europe, the latter seems increasingly
more likely. This does not mean that Europe will experience war any time
soon, but it does show that the dreams of European federalists, dreams
of a United States of Europe, will probably not materialize.
This article originally appeared on Stratfor.