The EU’s fate rests on Germany’s identity crisis

The writer Thomas Mann framed the choice in 1953. The new Bonn Republic, he said, should discard any nationalist ambitions for a German Europe. The future lay in binding the nation to its neighbours to create a European Germany.

Fast forward 70 years and today’s reunified Germany is still struggling to make up its mind. This month the powerful constitutional court in Karlsruhe raised a nationalist flag by firing a legal broadside against the European Central Bank. Chancellor Angela Merkel replied this week with a plan agreed with French president Emmanuel Macron for a €500bn recovery fund for the EU states worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some saw the court ruling — the latest in a long line of the judges’ attempts to redraw the boundary between national and European jurisdictions — as a potentially lethal blow to the ECB’s operations in managing the euro. Others cheered the fiscal federalism inherent in the mechanisms of the proposed new recovery fund. Supporters called it the union’s “Hamiltonian” moment — imitating the decision of Alexander Hamilton and other US founding fathers to transfer the debts of the American states to the new federal government. To my mind, both descriptions veer towards hyperbole. Taken together, they expose the tensions at the heart of Germany’s European policy.

Pace the enduring suspicions of British Eurosceptics, Berlin has no appetite for continental domination. To the contrary, Germany more often wants to close its eyes to the world. The facts of German power and geography, however, cannot be brushed aside. Sitting at the heart of the continent, Germany, by a margin, is the continent’s richest and most populous state. To that extent, a German Europe is unavoidable.

The Karlsruhe court is not alone in resenting the EU’s supposed intrusions. Ms Merkel’s grand coalition with the Social Democrats has left the far-right, Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany in the role of official opposition in the Bundestag. Significant parts of German society chafe against the “costs” of being good Europeans. The euro, one mantra runs, must not become a “transfer” union, with Germany bailing out “feckless” neighbours. Faced with the AFD’s populism, mainstream politicians have grown shy of making Mann’s case. If Germany disdains hegemony, it is also reluctant to assume responsibility.

This is the shifting balance on which Europe’s future now rests. The EU’s weight in the world is usually measured in terms of its considerable economic clout. The bloc, however, is an essentially political enterprise. The future of the euro, and ultimately of the EU, does not rest on the health of the Italian banking system but on the political commitment of the strongest member. The EU can shrug off Britain’s departure from the club. It cannot for long survive German indifference.

For the leaders of the Bonn Republic, a European Germany was an obvious and easy choice. The Coal and Steel Community and the European Community were a route to peace and reconciliation, and a source of legitimacy for the new German state. Along with membership of the Nato alliance, they staked out the new republic’s aspiration to eventual reunification with the Soviet-occupied east. It helped too that Europe offered an open market for German industry. More Europe, in other words, meant more Germany.

Helmut Kohl was the last chancellor to carry Mann’s mantle. The deal he struck with François Mitterrand to establish the euro was at once the quid pro quo for the French president’s consent to German unification and, in Kohl’s mind, a guarantee that the new Germany would hold fast to its Europeanness.

The logic of a European Germany has seemed less evident for the generation of his compatriots born after the war. From time to time, Ms Merkel has made the national interest case for EU membership: nations cannot alone solve global problems and Germany is richer and more secure for its place in the bloc. This pragmatism melded with determination when she decided in 2012 that neither Europe nor Germany could afford the collapse of the euro. She has rarely shown much sign of sharing Kohl’s emotional attachment to integration. The ruling axiom has been one that declares that Berlin will go as far as is necessary to rescue the union at moments of crisis, but no further.

Ms Merkel’s language at this week’s press conference with Mr Macron was striking in its suggestion this might have changed. After three years of rejecting most of the French president’s ideas, Ms Merkel declared that it was time to “fight back” against the biggest crisis in EU history: “Germany and France are fighting together for the European idea.”

Less certain is whether this presages a sustained effort on Berlin’s part to complete the unfinished business of the eurozone — creating an economic union alongside the monetary one. On past experience, the Hamiltonians are likely to be disappointed. Optimists hold on to the notion that as she nears the end of her political tenure, Ms Markel is looking for a place in Europe’s history books.

Either way, the inescapable truth is that the EU can work only if Germany wants it to work. This requires the nation’s political classes to remake the case for a European Germany even as the rest of the continent accommodates itself to a German Europe.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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