[Marxism] Greek Crisis Shows How Germany’s Power Polarizes Europe

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 7 05:49:59 MDT 2015

WSJ, July 7 2015
Greek Crisis Shows How Germany’s Power Polarizes Europe
The Continent’s most powerful country is grappling with its leadership 
role—and other nations are, too

BERLIN—Under the glass Reichstag dome in Germany’s parliament last week, 
left-wing opposition leader Gregor Gysi lit into Chancellor Angela 
Merkel for saddling Greece with a staggering unemployment rate, 
devastating wage cuts, and “soup kitchens upon soup kitchens.”

The chancellor, sitting a few steps away with a blank expression on her 
face, scrolled through her smartphone.

Ms. Merkel’s power after a decade in office has become seemingly 
untouchable, both within Germany and across Europe. But with the “no” 
vote in Sunday’s Greek referendum on bailout terms posing the biggest 
challenge yet to decades of European integration, risks to the European 
project resulting from Germany’s rise as the Continent’s most powerful 
country are becoming clear.

On Friday, Spanish antiausterity leader Pablo Iglesias urged his 
countrymen: “We don’t want to be a German colony.” On Sunday, after 
Greece’s result became clear, Italian populist Beppe Grillo said, “Now 
Merkel and bankers will have food for thought.” On Monday, Ms. Merkel 
flew to Paris for crisis talks amid signs the French government was 
resisting Berlin’s hard line on Greece.

“What is happening now is a defeat for Germany, especially, far more 
than for any other country,” said Marcel Fratzscher, head of the German 
Institute for Economic Research, a leading Berlin think tank. “Germany 
has, at the end of the day, helped determine most of the European 
decisions of the last five years.”

Senior German officials, in private moments, marvel at the fact that 
their country, despite its weak military and inward-looking public, now 
has a greater impact on most European policy debates than Britain or 
France, and appears to wield more global influence that at any other 
time since World War II.

Berlin think-tank elites, diplomats and mainstream politicians generally 
see the rise of German power as a good thing. They describe the 
stability, patience and rules-based discipline of today’s German 
governance as what Europe needs in these turbulent times. Germany—with 
its export-dependent economy and history-stained national identity—has 
the most to lose from an unraveling of European integration and is 
focused on keeping the union strong, they say.

Ms. Merkel’s popularity at home has remained strong through the Greek 
crisis, holding about steady at 67% in a poll at the end of June. She 
now must weigh whether to offer additional carrots to Greece to keep the 
country in the euro and preserve the irreversibility of membership in 
the common currency—at the risk of political backlash at home and the 
ire of German fiscal hawks. Only 10% of Germans supported further 
concessions for Greece in another poll last week.

Heard on the Street: Greek Bank Vortex Threatens Deal Hopes
U.S. officials generally see German leadership as crucial 
geopolitically, praising Ms. Merkel’s push last year to get all 28 
European Union countries to adopt sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. 
But across Europe, Germany’s power is also straining unity in the EU, an 
alliance forged as a partnership of equals that now is struggling to 
accommodate the swelling dominance of one member.

With every crisis in which Ms. Merkel acts as the Continent’s go-to 
problem solver, the message to many other Europeans is that for all the 
lip service about the common “European project,” it is the Germans and 
faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who run the show.

The pushback against German power in Europe is likely to grow if the 
eurozone crisis worsens or if Berlin’s policies grow more assertive.

In Greece last week, it was the stern face of 72-year-old German Finance 
Minister Wolfgang Schäuble that appeared on some of the posters urging 
voters to reject Europe’s bailout offer. “He’s been sucking your blood 
for five years—now tell him NO,” the posters said.

“They want to humiliate Greece to send a warning to Spain, Portugal and 
Italy,” Hilario Montero, a pensioner at a pro-Greece demonstration in 
Madrid recently, said of Berlin and Brussels. “The message is you are 
not allowed to cross the lines they set.”

Split verdict

Similar to America’s global role, German power polarizes Europe. Ms. 
Merkel is popular in the European mainstream, even as populist 
politicians say she is building a “Fourth Reich” dominated by German 

In Spain, for example, a June poll found Ms. Merkel to be the most 
disapproved-of foreign politician after Russian President Vladimir 
Putin, with 54% disapproval. But she also drew one of the higher 
approval ratings, 39%, besting the leaders of Italy, the European 
Commission and the United Nations.

The dynamics are similar in France. While more than half of French in a 
poll last week disapproved of Ms. Merkel’s handling of the Greek crisis, 
two-thirds of adherents of the main center-right party approved.

Now Greece presents the most direct test for Ms. Merkel’s Europe. Her 
government played the biggest role in shaping the austerity-and-reforms 
conditions for eurozone bailouts and was the most influential voice 
resisting debt relief for Greece.

After Greece asked for a bailout in 2010, the heads of the European 
Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund traveled to Berlin to 
exhort German lawmakers to approve one. A year later, Ms. Merkel pushed 
for rules establishing greater fiscal rigor across the eurozone. In 
Spain, the press dubbed her la inspectora.

Last September, then-Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras flew to Berlin 
and appealed to Ms. Merkel. Unpopular economic measures Greece was 
required under bailout terms to enact—including changes to pensions and 
taxation as well as the rules involving labor, banks and the public 
payroll—were feeding the rise of a radical left-wing movement, Syriza, 
he said.

Ms. Merkel held firm and pushed back against offering debt relief. 
German officials advised the Greeks to tackle tough reforms right away.

Mr. Samaras, amid rising Greek anger over economically stifling 
austerity measures, lost the election to Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras in 
January. As the crisis intensified under the new government’s tougher 
negotiating style, German influence grew even more unmistakable.

In February, just hours after Athens sent eurozone finance ministers a 
letter asking for an extension of its aid program—and before the 
ministers had the chance to consult one another on it—the German Finance 
Ministry emailed reporters a brief statement. “The letter from Athens is 
not a substantive proposal,” it said, quickly stifling discussion of the 

Early last week, while some European officials including French 
President François Hollande publicly held out hope of a deal before 
Sunday’s referendum, Ms. Merkel quickly signaled there would be no talks 
before the vote. Her view prevailed.

For several decades, it was the roughly equal tandem of France and 
Germany that together called the shots on European policy. Because they 
often disagreed, their compromises typically ended up as palatable to 
the rest of Europe.

Then a string of developments—including widespread opposition to the 
Iraq war, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s 2003 market-friendly 
economic reforms and the taboo-breaking summer of flag-waving when 
Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup—started to instill a more confident 
sense of national identity in a country still living in the shadow of 
the Nazi era. Economic problems in France weakened the country on the 
European stage, while British politics grew increasingly inward-looking.

In November 2011, Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats gathered on the 
grounds of the centuries-old Leipzig Trade Fair in eastern Germany for 
an annual party convention and remarked on Germany’s new influence. It 
had been just over a year since Greece asked for its first bailout. Some 
Europeans, including the French, initially resisted pushing for heavy 
doses of austerity in exchange for aid. But Ms. Merkel—the former 
physicist who grew up under communism and now oversaw Europe’s largest 
economy—had won the argument.

“All of a sudden, Europe speaks German,” Volker Kauder, the leader of 
Ms. Merkel’s conservatives in parliament, said in a speech at the 
convention. “Not in the language but in the acceptance of the 
instruments for which Angela Merkel fought so long and so successfully.”

Ms. Merkel’s approval rating at home shot up, from around 40% in 2010 to 
70% in 2013, a range where it has remained. A yearslong refrain from 
German politicians helped keep German voters behind Ms. Merkel even as 
it estranged Europeans elsewhere: Countries seeking help must also do 
their Hausaufgaben—their homework.

Facing Putin

In March 2014, Ms. Merkel put her domestic political capital on the line 
and established Germany as a key European geopolitical power: She took 
on Mr. Putin. With him on the verge of annexing Crimea, the typically 
soft-spoken chancellor warned that Russia faced “massive damage,” 
economically and politically, if it continued intervening in Ukraine.

In ensuing months, Ms. Merkel repeatedly secured unanimity among EU 
members for rounds of Russia sanctions. Her surprisingly tough line 
unsettled a pacifist German public that polls show shrinks from 
foreign-policy involvement and wants a good relationship with its former 
World War II enemy.

And, as it had at the peak of the eurozone crisis, the German-inspired 
consensus hid further strains on European unity.

On the EU’s eastern periphery, Germany’s leadership on Ukraine stirred 
discomfort. Even as Berlin pushed for sanctions, it urged hawkish 
Western diplomats to avoid provoking Russia by such steps as stationing 
more NATO troops closer to Russia.

Poland and the Baltic states said troops were needed for their security. 
The dispute over how to deal with Russia prompted a senior Polish 
official to exclaim, in one meeting last summer, that Germany was again 
toying with Poland’s existence—alluding in part to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet 
nonaggression pact that effectively divided Poland between Russia and 

Other countries, from Italy to Hungary, have chafed at having to put 
their close ties to Russia on ice amid Ms. Merkel’s push for sanctions.

But to Germany’s south, it is the eurozone crisis that has been the 
biggest factor in fostering discomfort with Germany’s dominant role on 
the Continent. In Italy and Spain, opponents of Ms. Merkel have referred 
to her as the leader of a “Fourth Reich.”

In France, Berlin’s shaping of the crisis response has spawned bitter 
criticism of Germany, now a popular theme for far-left and far-right 
alike in a country whose influence used to exceed its neighbors’. In a 
French poll last December, 74% said Germany had too much sway in 
European Union politics.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of the left-wing Parti de Gauche, in May 
published “Le Hareng de Bismarck—Le Poison Allemand” (“Bismarck’s 
Herring—the German Poison”), a 208-page denunciation of German supremacy 
in Europe. Last year, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front told 
Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine Ms. Merkel “wants to impose something on 
others that will lead to the explosion of the European Union.”

With the crisis in Greece worsening, cracks have started to show in the 
mainstream. Mr. Hollande, a Socialist, faces a domestic rebellion from 
members of his parliamentary majority who say he has signed up to 
German-inspired austerity and abandoned his 2012 election pledge to push 
pro-growth policies in Europe. Last week, he called on Greece’s 
creditors to try to reach a solution more quickly.

Within Germany, many politicians and leading commentators say a more 
assertive German role in Europe is the responsible thing to do. 
“Politically and economically stable countries cannot hide,” Foreign 
Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said earlier this year. “Germany is a 
little too big and important to comment on international affairs from 
the sidelines.”

In March, a prominent Berlin political scientist, Herfried Münkler, 
published a book, “The Power in the Middle,” that captured the German 
elite’s foreign-policy Zeitgeist. Germany, he wrote, had the duty to 
lead Europe because neither Brussels nor another EU country was strong 
enough to do so.

But in an interview last week, Mr. Münkler said Germany leading Europe 
alone was “no long-term solution.” For one thing, polls continue to show 
Germans don’t want more international responsibility. For another, he 
said, the potential rise of a successful populist party in Germany—as 
has happened in just about all of Germany’s neighbors, from Poland to 
the Netherlands to France—would sharpen nationalist rhetoric in Germany 
and increase Europeans’ aversion to German leadership.

“Germany is in this hegemonic role in Europe because we have no relevant 
right-wing populist parties,” Mr. Münkler said.

That is why Europe’s current showdown with Greece is critical for the 
future of Germany’s place in Europe, analysts say.

If Ms. Merkel approves a new lifeline for Athens after weeks of 
vitriolic debate, she is likely to face a furor from Germany’s right and 
stoke the country’s incipient euroskeptic movement.

If Greece careens out of the euro, Ms. Merkel will face blame for an 
episode that has further polarized Europe at a time when controversies 
over the U.K.’s EU membership and how to treat migrants and refugees are 
adding to the tensions wrought by the Ukraine crisis.

Claudia Major, a security specialist at the German Institute for 
International and Security Affairs, said: “If Greece were to leave the 
eurozone, this may someday be seen as the beginning of the end of the 
project of European integration—when the Germans were not in the 
position, as the leading power in shaping Europe, to be able to resolve 
things with the Greeks.”

—Matt Moffett, Giovanni Legorano and David Román contributed to this 

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