The Munich Security Conference, held every year in the Bavarian city, is like the Davos summit, injected with an extra shot of testosterone. It is where the West’s leading experts on defence, grand strategy, and other such lofty and lethal topics, congregate. This year, perhaps the most impressive munition on display was that uniquely fearsome German weapon: the compound noun. British historian Timothy Garton Ash spoke of the need for a Weltpolitikfähigkeitsverlustvermeidungsstrategie (literally, a strategy to avoid losing the ability to impact world affairs). Snappy. Whether Europe will in fact be able to evolve such a strategy depends in large part on whether Germany is prepared to embrace its role in shaping it.
There is little doubt today that the ‘reluctant hegemon’ directs much of the affairs of Europe, perhaps to a greater extent than it would wish to. The Euro crisis threw this into sharp relief: at a crucial meeting of European finance ministers, when the German representative was taken ill, the meeting could not proceed until the German Interior Minister flew in to take his colleague’s place. No ‘European’ agreement would have been taken seriously without Berlin’s backing. Germany is the lynchpin of the complex and interlacing system operated by the EU and intends to remain firmly within that structure.
Although Angela Merkel remains committed to building what she calls a “robust and capable” Europe, the pace of integration is now glacial. Even as the dust from the Eurozone crisis settles, few new initiatives are on the horizon. Many, including the German Chancellor, hailed this year’s Aachen Treaty as a concrete step towards a European Army and, consequently, European geopolitical independence from its American guarantor. In fact, the Treaty involves a bare-minimum increase in cooperation between the French and German military commands. The Franco-German motor of integration that once drove grand projects like the single currency and the ill-fated European Constitution has grounded nearly to a halt.
The problem at the heart of this remains that, as Henry Kissinger once put it, “Germany is too big for Europe and too small for the world.” It is the largest economy in Europe; one which weathered the 2008 crisis remarkably well owing to its rejection of US-style profligacy, public and private. However, the prospects for Germany to project power abroad independently are infinitesimal. Despite its smaller economic base, France spends nearly a third more than Germany on defence. Germany also lacks the kind of cultural clout which allows France to carry out its policy of Francafrique or the Anglo-American Special Relationship which magnifies British influence out of all proportion.
There are, logically, two ways out of this dilemma: shrink Germany, or grow Europe. The former is the traditional solution. The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 and the Congress System of 1815 were both predicated on perpetuating the division of Germany into dozens of small principalities and preventing the entire potential of the region being harnessed by a single power. As late as 1944, the idea was seriously floated by the U.S. Treasury that the ideal post-war order for Germany would be to strip it of most of its industrial capacity and allow it to do little more than feed itself. In 1989-90, many European leaders including Margaret Thatcher, initially opposed the reunification of East and West Germany. Giulio Andreotti, the Italian Foreign Minister memorably remarked that he liked Germany so much that he wanted there to be two of them forever.
The modern and evidently more effective approach has been to favour the latter solution. European states have aimed to achieve this by creating institutions which channel the energies of member states into cooperation rather than conflict. A Court of Justice, a Common Agricultural Policy, and a common approach to data regulation have all followed from this thinking. If all the nations of Europe are locked into these common institutions together, so the thinking goes, none will want to bring the roof down on its own head. It appears, however, that as protesters on the streets of Athens routinely make ill-judged comparisons to the Third Reich, Germany has outgrown these institutions and is, once again seen as ‘too big’ for Europe.
Some, including much of the Greek left and the British right, suggest that the solution is to pare back the links between Germany and other states. This might take the form of dismantling the Eurozone by allowing Greece and other weaker economies to leave the currency union. They argue that this will allow the various nations of Europe to develop at their own pace free of overweening Teutonic supervision. There may well be philosophical arguments for this approach, but it is unlikely to lead to greater political stability in Europe and it will almost certainly put paid to European hopes of beating an independent path in international politics. In an anarchic European order, it is likely that stronger states like Germany would dominate even more than at present, restrained as they are by European institutions.
In 1766, the Holy Roman Privy Councillor Friedrich Moser described the Imperial goulash of duchies, principalities, and prince-bishoprics as “strong enough to harm itself but powerless to save itself.” Europe finds itself in a similar bind today: the EU is strong enough to issue regulations which its citizens consider burdensome and overbearing, but too weak and divided to satisfactorily solve those problems which strike at the foundations of the European project. If that project is to survive the strong centrifugal currents buffeting it, European states will have to create a genuine European democracy capable of both channelling Germany’s economic might and helping Greece weather its financial storm. A European Parliament with the power to propose legislation, craft a joint Eurozone budget, and issue EU-wide bonds to back debts, might be a start.
Whatever form such closer union takes, one thing is clear: if it is to happen, it will require willing, active, and energetic German leadership. In the absence of such leadership, the consequences of a grand European fission might doom the continent to repeat precisely those violent cycles of history that the Union project was meant to break.
Jay Vinayak Ojha read Law at Cambridge and graduated in 2018. His other areas of interest include history and international relations. He is currently based in Delhi.