The accidental empire rises again

Given the uneasy reactions to Angela Merkel’s handling of the Eurozone crisis, the answer to whether Europe can stomach German leadership is 'no'.

April 07, 2015 12:48 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:27 pm IST

It can be tough being a politician. We don’t know how German Chancellor Angela Merkel feels about the numerous caricatures that show her sporting a Hitlerian beard or attitude.

Ms. Merkel might want to have a chat with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom she is meeting later this month in Germany, on how to shake off these critics. But what will be more difficult to overcome will be the arguments behind the not-so-funny drawings. There is a growing chorus in Europe holding her responsible for the prolonged Eurozone crisis, and more.

While nobody seriously believes that the German Chancellor is Hitlerian, reasonable voices argue that Germany’s size has started to again pose a structural challenge to Europe. If that were true, a bit of Merkel-bashing could be just the symptom of a deeper problem, which could potentially sink the European project altogether.

This is the argument posited by a set of authors led by Hans Kundnani, Research Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). In his book The Paradox of German Power , Mr. Kundnani argues that with its overwhelming economic power, the “German question” has returned to Europe.

The phrase refers to the historical theory that Germany’s size and location in the centre of Europe was one of the main reasons for the troubled history of the continent in the 20th century. While the country was too powerful to be challenged by any one European state, it was not strong enough to defeat a coalition of two or more of them.

Germany, therefore, was described as a “semi-hegemon” whose position motivated the other European powers to form coalitions against it. As a result, Berlin suffered from a “fear of encirclement” that finally triggered World War I and led to World War II.

Today, critics argue, Berlin is not a military threat but the “German question” has re-emerged in a geo-economic form. Its economic strength and current account surplus put pressure on its neighbours, especially on the periphery. At the same time, Germany alone cannot impose its will on the EU. This makes it again a problematic “semi-hegemon”.

While it is true that Ms. Merkel and other German politicians have shown very little diplomatic sensitivity towards their debt-ridden neighbours in handling the Euro crisis, the bigger picture is slightly different. Far from being a bully, it shows a country trying to find a new role in a rapidly changing environment. In this context, Ms. Merkel has not done too bad a job.

More than 60 years after the birth of the EU, Europe is a very different place from what it was before World War II. The loaded term “German question” ignores the long path of Germany’s integration into the West and the fact that the country is today embedded in a framework of European discourse and decision-making. And that is exactly what the EU was designed for.

As a result of this success, more leadership is expected from Germany. “Both Europe and the world expect Germany to shoulder a greater share of the burden of leadership, collective security, and international cooperation,” said former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a review process of Berlin’s foreign policy initiated by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

This remarkable, one-year exercise called ‘Review 2014’ asked international experts their opinion on German foreign policy. One of the reasons Mr. Steinmeier started it was the resistance within his own Ministry to the growing global pressure for more German leadership. So successfully has Germany integrated into the EU that only a minority of its politicians and people wants a bigger international role for the country. The late sociologist Ulrich Beck, therefore, called Germany the “accidental empire”. “There is no master plan, no intention to occupy Europe. All the talk about a Fourth Reich is misplaced,” said Beck in an interview in 2013.

But as reluctant a leader as it might be, Berlin is aware that global expectations and its own economic weight don’t allow it to hide any longer behind the past or behind the U.S.

In the Ukraine crisis, for example, Ms. Merkel quite successfully put together a diplomatic consensus within the EU for sanctions against Russia. But the controversy with the U.S. about arming Ukraine also shows Germany’s weak point: it lacks military muscle and is not likely to develop any in the near future. Pacifism, to some extent, is considered a “lesson learnt” from its violent history.

Berlin might not yet be ready to provide the kind of leadership that some expect, but the real “German question” seems to be whether Europe can really stomach German leadership. Given the uneasy reactions to Ms. Merkel’s handling of the Eurozone crisis, the answer is clearly no. The country would be well advised to use what power it has to strengthen the EU instead.

(Britta Petersen is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi.)

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