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Flight deck crew prepare a Rafale fighter jet during sea trials on the French aircraft carrier "Charles De Gaulle" in the Mediterranean sea in this November 26, 2009 file photograph.

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

When the European debt problem fast-tracked into a genuine crisis, Germany stood apart. Chancellor Angela Merkel was highly reluctant to bail out effectively bankrupt Greece, a country German voters considered the author of its own misfortune.

German reluctance to side with its European Union partners was on display again when it abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote to establish a no-fly zone over Libya and use "all necessary measures" to protect civilians.

Germany's stands show that the EU, in spite of its efforts to act as a single economic and political unit on the international stage, is still a divided force. Germany may be the EU's economic and industrial juggernaut, but it was France and Britain that stole the diplomatic show as the Libyan civil war turned increasingly bloody.

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Italy, another EU heavyweight, had been wishy-washy about stopping Moammar Gadhafi's assault against his own people. Italy and Libya have strong business ties and Italy occupied Libya between 1911 and 1943. Libya's collapse could deliver a flood of refugees to Italy, which lies due north of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, but Rome finally got on board and offered air bases for the enforcement of the no-fly zone.

Germany's stand on bailing out profligate EU states during the debt crisis indicates that it is willing to split from the EU family when it feels strongly about an issue. While Germany ultimately endorsed the rescue effort for Greece in May, and Ireland six months later, it was done reluctantly and with strict demands that debt-soaked countries do all they can to fix their own financial messes instead of relying on German taxpayers for handouts.

Still, Germany's reluctance to endorse a no-fly zone over Libya came as something of a surprise, given the remarks made by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in January, when Germany began a two-year stint as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. "Germany will be a reliable, responsible and engaged partner," he said. "We will do our part to ensure that the world continues to see the council as the central body for peace and security in the world."

Germany sent out a different message this week, when it sided with China, Russia, Brazil and India in abstaining in the vote. While abstaining did not mean it blocked military action, its lack of support for its traditional European allies, especially France, appeared to show that it has waning regard for the Berlin-Paris axis that did so much to define modern Europe.

Germany has been non-interventionist at heart since the end of the Second World War. It did not join the Americans in the Iraq war, though it did contribute more than 5,000 troops and police officers to the coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Afghan operations, however, have not been popular in Germany, in spite of the relatively few German deaths there.

Domestic politics seem to have encouraged the pacifist stand of Ms. Merkel and Mr. Westerwelle, who said Germany saw "significant dangers and risks" in military intervention in Libya. Just as the bailouts of Greece and Ireland were deeply unpopular among German voters, they evidently sensed that Germany's involvement in a potential Libyan quagmire would similarly alienate voters.

Timing might have influenced the German coalition government's reluctance. The government faces state elections in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. A week later, crucial votes are to take place in western states. If the votes go in the government's favour, Mr. Westerwelle's cautious stance on Libya will be interpreted as a savvy political move, even if it came at a cost to Germany's once steadfast relationship with France and Britain.

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Col. Gadhafi has praised Germany's non-interventionist stand in Libya. That, apparently, is an embarrassment the German government is willing to suffer in exchange for votes.

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