Angela Bismarck Thatcher

German Chancellor Merkel sent IMF money to Greece; was it really necessary to wreak such unparalleled havoc in Europe?

News | Joschka Fischer | April 2010

The European Union’s recent summit has brought about a typically European compromise on the Greek financial crisis, one that avoids the term "solution" and hides behind the idea of a "mechanism." Whether it works will be seen in April, when Greece will have to refinance its debt once more.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel prevailed with her demand that the International Monetary Fund participate in a Greek bailout, should one be necessary. Moreover, the final decision on such a bailout will require, as before, unanimity in European bodies, meaning it will remain under German control.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, secured eurozone participation in a bailout for Greece. For Germany, this would entail a payment of up to €4 billion and – anathema! – the de facto end of the bailout ban in Article 125 of the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, despite a lot of verbal juggling intended to "prove" that the agreement on Greece conforms with the ban. Sarkozy also wanted, and received, increased economic coordination within the European Council. The exclusion of members who violate the Maastricht Treaty is off the table.

In fact, aside from some additional minor points, the European Council’s resolution differs from the previous compromise in only one respect: IMF participation. If Germany needed the Fund’s involvement to save face domestically and because of a decision by its Constitutional Court, was it really necessary to wreak such unparalleled havoc in Europe just to bring that about? Everyone involved could have lived with this compromise; it was the political confrontation that preceded it that made agreement difficult. Indeed, the European confrontation Merkel initiated (shame on you if you see a connection with the upcoming German elections) has changed the EU forever.

In the German media, references to Margaret Thatcher and Otto von Bismarck abound, with Merkel hailed as an Iron Lady, even an Iron Chancellor. You can only shake your head at the decline in Germans’ historical awareness, given that neither Thatcher nor Bismarck has ever been a role model for Germany’s European policy, and for good reason! Neither of them thought much, if anything, of European integration.

Why even think of Bismarck if you want European amity? Injecting Bismarck’s name into the debate will undoubtedly trouble Franco-German cooperation. You could disregard all this as typical exaggeration if German domestic reaction did not demonstrate a clearly identifiable trend, namely Germany’s withdrawal as a motor of European integration as it increasingly pursues its more narrowly defined national interests.

"But that’s what the others do, too," is the answer you hear more and more often in Germany nowadays. That is true, except that Germany is not like the "others." Because of its size, location, and history, Germany has a specific role to play within that unique structure – sandwiched between national and European interests – that is the EU.

If Germany no longer acts as the driving force of European integration, then European integration is a thing of the past. If Germany no longer Europeanizes its more narrowly defined national interests, but pursues them as others do, the result will be a re-nationalization within the EU. To what extent the EU can take this strain, only time will tell.

So far, Germany has always been the motor of European integration, in accordance with its political and economic interests. The consequences of Germany’s renunciation of that role are predictable: the EU will regress from a union of states moving towards ever closer integration to a weak confederation dominated by conflicting national interests.

This is the British idea of Europe, and the German Constitutional Court, too, would probably be happy about such a development. But to call this U-turn a stroke of political genius that saved the euro and Helmut Kohl’s European legacy is simply delusional.

It is best not to think about what this trend towards a weak EU will mean for Europe’s future in an international environment challenged by new players and dimensions. But why, in light of these developments, the EU bothered to enact the Lisbon Treaty is increasingly hard to understand. After all, this treaty is about the last thing a mere confederation needs.


Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute of Human Sciences, 2010.

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