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Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash

Germans squirm in the European driver's seat Add to ...

In 1953, novelist Thomas Mann appealed to an audience of students in Hamburg to strive for “not a German Europe but a European Germany.” This stirring pledge was endlessly repeated at the time of German unification.

Today, we have a variation that few foresaw: a European Germany in a German Europe.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Berlin republic is a European Germany, in the rich, positive sense in which the great novelist had come to use the term. It is free, civilized, democratic, law-bound, socially and environmentally conscious.

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It’s far from perfect, obviously, but as good as any other big country in Europe – and the best Germany we’ve ever had.

Yet because of the crisis of the euro zone this European Germany finds itself, unwillingly, at the centre of a German Europe. No one can seriously doubt that Germany is calling the shots in the euro zone. The reason there is a fiscal compact treaty agreed by 25 European Union member states is that Berlin wanted it. Desperate, impoverished Greeks are being told “do their homework” by Germans. More extraordinary still, the German Chancellor is now telling French voters who to vote for in their own presidential election, through a series of campaign appearances with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Everyone says Europe is being led by “Merkozy” but the reality is more like “Merkelzy.”

Germany did not seek this leadership position. Rather, this is a perfect illustration of the law of unintended consequences. German leaders, from Helmut Schmidt to Helmut Kohl, had envisaged advancing the European project through a European monetary union, but it was François Mitterrand’s France that insisted on pinning Germany down to it. Historians can argue about how far the commitment in the Maastricht Treaty was a direct quid pro quo for French support for German unification, but two things are clear. Both sides of the Rhine agreed that this was an important part of binding a newly united Germany into a more united Europe, in which France would continue to play a – if not the – leading role. And many Germans saw giving up their precious deutschmark as paying an economic price for a larger political good.

Twenty years on from Maastricht, we see that the precise opposite has happened. Economically, the euro turned out to be very good for Germany.

Politically, it is precisely the monetary union that has put Germany in the driver’s seat and relegated France to the front passenger seat.

So far, Germany is proving a reluctant, nervous and not very skillful driver.

There are many reasons for this. One of these is not wanting to be in the driving seat in the first place. Another is suspecting that everyone else in the car wants you to pay for the gas, the meal and probably the hotel too.

Then there is the unhappy sense that they are damned if they do lead and damned if they don’t. The terrible history that prompted Mann’s postwar appeal plays a role here. If Germany suggests a commissar to oversee Greek budget cuts, he inevitably gets called a gauleiter. Then there is the fact that the German elite simply is not used to playing such a leadership role in Europe, unlike the French elite, who like nothing better. The French want to, but can’t; the Germans can, but don’t want to.

Above all, there is the perennial dilemma of Germany’s awkward, in-between size: “too big for Europe, too small for the world” said Henry Kissinger.

Even with the most self-confident, adroit elite, and even without the memories of 1914-1945, leadership from that in-between position would be difficult.

Two things are therefore needed. First, all Germans should go back and read Mann’s short talk, both to understand the historical dimension of today’s challenge and to recall the intellectual and moral grandeur that was once theirs. For Mann’s beautifully crafted, profoundly moving message to those young Germans in 1953 can also be summarized in three short American words: “Yes we can.”

Second, they need a lot of help from their friends. They won’t manage it on their own. We may laugh at Sarko’s antics in the front passenger seat ( “Non, non, ma chérie! Tout droit, tout droit!”), but he’s got the right idea. For Prime Minister David Cameron to consign Britain to the back seat of the European car at this critical moment is folly beyond words. Earlier this week, Ms. Merkel again stressed how much Germany wants to see this fellow northern European, free-market liberal country return to the heart of European affairs.

Back in Hamburg in 1953, the British were doing everything they could, in a far from ignoble way, to help ruined Germany back on its feet. It would be so shortsighted, so plain dumb, for Britain to abandon Germany to its own devices just when it finds itself playing such a decisive role in Europe – a role that it did not seek, for which it is ill-prepared and in which it needs all the help it can get.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University.

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