The European Council needs to show decisive collective leadership - and avoid Germany-bashing and playing political chicken
There is a groundswell of criticism of German stubbornness in the face of disaster for all. Critics on left and right alike consider Berlin’s demand for further integration before it will take decisive rescue action as both reckless and irresponsible. ‘Germany-bashing’ has become the game in town, with all its nasty overtones and the predictable effect of hardening German resolve. All of which misreads the psychology of Merkel’s brinkmanship and distracts from what should concentrate minds now, which is how to get out of the mess rather than figure out who is to blame.
Even if some add petrol to the flames by personalising their attacks and spicing them up with unsavoury imagery it should not obscure the fundamental critique of Germany and its policy (we must be careful not to give fuel inadvertently to any suggestion that criticising a country’s policy implies rejecting its people). But Germany more than any other country is aware of the risk of rational criticism being distorted. Therefore we must hope and expect that it will not mistake such criticism of the way it handles the crisis as reflecting anything more than deep concern that: a) we are in a deep mess; b) Germany is the only one who can save the situation; and c) Berlin doesn’t (seem to) do what is necessary.
How you vent that criticism will depend on your viewpoint: for Spain or Greece, the impact of the persistent crisis is devastating in a very direct way and the frustration about Germany is one of existential desperation which can understandably turn angry (though not necessarily hostile: it is reassuring to see polls that show people critical of the German government but respectful of the country – and not just in football). For the eurosceptics, less existentially desperate but no less passionate, it all serves to prove their point that Europe is the problem. For the rest of us the concern is more rational, namely that what Germany is doing amounts to the kind of last-minute brinkmanship that at some point will go wrong.
For its part, Germany should be more forthright in pointing out that being in the unique position of saviour does not make you fully and solely responsible. No one, including those who are existentially desperate, would deny the logic of demanding reform and fiscal discipline (even Greece has for now opted to stay on that course). The other quid pro quo asked by Germany – further integration – is also considered logical by all rational and reasonable forces. But unlike the discipline conditionality, where everyone is more or less grudgingly trying, the integration demand is met with denial and evasion (except of course by the UK, which sits safely out of it).
This is where responsibility also rests squarely on the shoulders of others, which means France first and foremost, but also the little ones: to see the Dutch prime minister saying domestically about further integration that ‘whatever they agree it won’t apply to us’ is symbolic of the short-sightedness and total lack of responsibility displayed by politicians (leaders is too positive a label) whose electoral interest comes first.
Even where they have received a sweeping new mandate as in France, the realisation that the precipice is looming is not enough to display real leadership with its key ingredients: vision and courage. It is as if they are all in their own way playing chicken, waiting to see who blinks first.
The vicious circle that needs to be broken is essentially one of a psychology: the real deal in this week’s European Council would not be on policy but on courage. They all know what needs doing, and behind the denial they all know that they are in it together. There is no need to first define ‘political union’ – in fact it may be best to leave that a bit fuzzy for the moment to allow space for bold steps that do not appear so.
Turning the corner now – with this Council increasingly seen as the defining moment beyond any others we have had so far – requires our leaders to rise above themselves, and be willing to place averting disaster over short-term electoral gain. And that is where they all have to measure up, with Merkel and Hollande leading the way and the others prepared to follow. We are almost at a point of no return, where making concessions shows strength, not weakness.
Germany’s risk-aversion has paradoxically made it the biggest gambler of all, with the stakes getting higher and higher. The longer the crisis drags on, the more the situation will polarise and populism will spread, and the higher the psychological barrier to break through the vicious circle will be. This is where Germany needs help, not bashing.
If any bashing is in order at this point it should be directed at the collective leadership, without distinction. It is our ‘leaders’ who are making a hash of it; and if they are our leaders they should get on with it and do something before it is too late, and do it together.
At least there will be safety in numbers when they face their constituencies and electorates (and consolation if they end up on the dole queue). Note ‘if’, not when – history shows that real leadership has a way of ultimately winning the day.
Dick Oosting is CEO of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This post first appeared on its website