[Marxism] Greek Crisis Shows How Germany’s Power Polarizes Europe
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
By ANTON TROIANOVSKI
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.”
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,
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.
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
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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