There is a sense, as I stroll down the Wilhelmstrasse and pass through the TV vans corralled behind the Bundestag offices, awaiting the next move of Chancellor Angela Merkel, that Berlin has transformed itself from the eye of the hurricane into the centre of the world.
You don’t hear about Brussels any more – the nominal European capital has been driven into the inside pages, its officials impotent and secondary. London is tied up with its own British worries, and even Washington, which played such a big role in creating both the unified Europe and the economic crisis that now threatens to tear it apart, is unable to do much more than plead and goad.
Berlin is now the seat of European power, the only place that can possibly unravel the crisis. And Berlin will be the construction site for another stage of European power, for, as Ms. Merkel said a few days ago, only a more powerful continent will prevent a further financial slide.
“We need more Europe,” she said. “We need not just a currency union; we also need a so-called fiscal union, more common budget policies. And we need above all a political union.”
This may be right, but Germans don’t understand how this sounds when it comes from Berlin – for Berlin still does not really believe it wields the power.
Until the crisis became terminal, German leaders had assumed that theirs could become the world’s second-largest export nation, turning the lesser nations of Europe into economic colonies entirely dependent on Germany’s finances – without taking on the great responsibilities that come with great power.
In large part this is because the phrase “European power” is not understood today by anyone, least of all those who actually wield it.
Europeans, and especially Germans, thought they had created a new kind of power, one that was dispersed, shared and guided by neutral laws and institutions. The euro was merely part of the substructure of that centreless power.
There’s a book I keep on my shelf to remind me of this old faith. It was published only seven years ago, which seems like a long-forgotten epoch when you consider its title: Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century.
At the time, many people found it a sensible and uncontroversial statement. The tight-linked institutions of Europe seemed to be bringing the world a new age of open trade, economic development and climate-change and arms-control treaties. Booming Europe would lead the world, author Mark Leonard concluded, “not because Europe will run the world as an empire, but because the European way of doing things will become the world’s.”
You can stop laughing now. But if you dismiss it as fantasy, you are also misunderstanding “European power.” For in many ways, the crisis has actually increased it.
I spend a lot of time, in writing for North Americans, clarifying the difference between the euro zone (monetary, 17 countries), the European Economic Area (trade, 30 countries), the European Union (political, 27 countries), the Council of Europe (legal, 47 countries) and the border-free Schengen Area (26 countries) – all of which, by the way, were mainly created by conservative governments and generally opposed by the left.
Only the first of these is in crisis. The rest remain robust. The free movement of trade and people between borders, the pooling of legal and administrative standards – these are functioning better than ever and, as Ms. Merkel noted, will have to become even more substantial if the currency crisis is to be resolved.
The problem, though, is that this solution is coming from Berlin. Germany still thinks of itself as one country among equals in a centreless power structure. From Athens and Lisbon and Madrid, however, Berlin looks increasingly like an imperial centre. And that, in the basic economic sense, is what it is.
“The EU is being increasingly identified with Germany. It’s an unprecedented situation where one member state is perceived to have all the power,” Hans Kundnani of the European Council on Foreign Relations told me.
“We may be entering an era where ‘more Europe’ is no longer seen as ‘more integration in an egalitarian way’ but as being more domination by one member state. It’s bad for Germany, and it’s also bad for the brand of the EU, which is supposed to transcend national interests.”
This is where the real trouble could begin. The solution to Europe’s economic crisis could trigger an even greater political crisis – and really put an end to Europe’s hopes of running the 21st century.