“Don’t mention the war!”
The phrase, referring to WW2, is a kind of a joke among Britons whenever Germans are in the vicinity.
The Second World War – inflicted on the world by German ambitions in Europe and beyond – led, one way and another, to the project of a united Europe.
Ostensibly the aim of the European Union was to prevent further wars between European nations. It’s ironic then that the current outcome of European monetary union, thanks to astronomical levels of Greek public debt, is aggression breaking out all over Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a “stand-up argument” about the Greek escue package, according to one EU official reported in Spain’s El Pais newspaper. Fury boiled over on the streets of Athens where rioters set fire to police and killed three fellow citizens, one a pregnant woman. And tensions in Germany led to loss of votes for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party and plenty of protests about Merkel’s agreement to a €750 billion (£644 billion) rescue package for the euro.
The Greek sovereign debt crisis has made for huge political change in Europe. What it has highlighted is the very question of a united Europe. While it’s clear there can be no European unity without the euro, powerful voices are now saying there can be no euro without more European unity. And that in effect means more centralised political control.
Merkel said on May 2010: “If the euro fails, it is not only the currency that fails – Europe fails. The idea of European unity fails.”
And nowhere is the idea of European unity more in question now than in Germany. The German people have had to contribute most to the Greek bail out – €120 billion was pledged by mid-May 2010 with a further €25 billion expected to be demanded. Not only were the Germans quick to start resenting the Greeks, they also got angry that the rescue plan looked too French. Sarkozy played a leading role in putting the deal together, working with fellow Frenchmen Jean-Claude Trichet (ECB president) and Dominique Strauss-Kahn (Head of the International Monetary Fund.)
German taxpayers looking at the new European economic landscape decided they didn’t like what they saw. Given the fragility of the euro, fears of runaway inflation were quick to surface and the national memory of that phenomenon preceding the Second World War is terrifying to Germans.
Ulrike Guérot is Head of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The ECFR is a new, pan-European think-tank formed to assist the “development of coherent and effective European-values-based foreign policy”. Despite her pan-European role, Ms Guérot summed up the change in German thinking on Europe this way:
“Germany has provided the oil that greased Europe. If we don’t want to do that any more, we need to say so. But that means we no longer want to see a Europeanised Germany, but a German-style Europe.”
How would a German-style Europe be enforced? The conservative newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, indicated that if necessary Germany could threaten to pull out of the euro.
And in mid-May 2010 this is how things stand in Europe and with the euro. European unity is being sorely tested. Cracks have opened everywhere in the foundations of the single currency. Germany, like Greece, is riven by political tensions with voices for and against staying in the euro.
Ulrike Guérot had these very revealing words to say on Germany’s central place in the European project:
“Something diffuse has changed in the way that Germany runs European policy, which can be defined as a certain “Germany first” optic that is new in tone and style….From the very beginning, European integration was mainly and essentially done for and by Germany. If Germany steps out of the movie as a key-actor, the movie is finished.”