Twenty years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s reunification, French magazines were full of caricatures of Chancellor Helmut Kohl wearing the traditional pointed Prussian helmet. The new Germany was perceived as a threat to the European balance. Germany was simply ‘too much’ again.
German geopolitical ambitions, it was believed, would invariably seek greater proportionality with the size of the country’s population and the dynamism of its economy. It was only a matter of time, people thought, before the ‘German Question’ would return to haunt Europe, as it did between 1871 and 1945.
To a large extent, Kohl held up the same picture, which he used to persuade his European counterparts that they should rush to bind Germany to a more integrated Europe. Indeed, this reasoning led to the creation of the euro. For the sake of its European vocation, Germany proclaimed itself ready to abandon its cherished deutschmark, the currency that had accompanied and symbolised its spectacular economic rebirth and post-war social stability.
Today, it is not an excess of German ambition, but rather a lack of it, that is threatening Europe. Germany may remain ‘too big’ for other Europeans, but the ‘new German problem’ is that the country wants too little. Its dream is neither to dominate Europe, nor even to lead it by the exemplary quality of its policies. Germany’s not-so-secret ambition is to become a Magna Helvetia, a Big Switzerland – prosperous, stable, neutral, and ultimately irrelevant.
Such a dream is obviously flawed. Switzerland can be Switzerland because it is surrounded by the peaceful environment of the European Union. It is one thing for smaller European countries to dream of being Swiss ; it is quite another when such an aspiration comes from the heart of Europe, from the country that was once seen as the EU’s keenest pupil.
So, what went wrong ? The rise of euroscepticism in Germany is a new twist in the country’s ongoing ‘normalisation’. With the rise of political leaders who had not witnessed the terrifying consequences of the Second World War, it was inevitable that Germany’s emotional bond with its European mission – born of guilt and the quest for redemption – should gradually disappear.
Before dreaming of Magna Helvetia, Germany briefly passed through a phase in which it saw itself as a ‘second France’ – a country dominated by the pursuit of national interest, with Europe the continuation of that pursuit by other means. But soon Switzerland became a reference point for German leaders, and then an explicit and dangerous model.
Referenda are not for Germany what they are in Switzerland, a normal mode of governance. But, on all major issues, and not only because of their political weakness, Germany’s leaders now make public opinion the polestar of policy. This drift towards populism exists everywhere in Europe nowadays, but it is particularly damaging when it affects Europe’s leading country.
German public opinion is not necessarily wrong when it denounces the irresponsible behaviour that led Greece into its present crisis. Nor, after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, are Germans irresponsible to reject nuclear power – which is unlike all other energy sources and represents a risk of a far mightier magnitude – with renewed vigour. And it is not necessarily unwise to express doubts about the rationality of engaging wholeheartedly in Libya without being fully aware of the strength of either Muammar Qaddafi’s loyalists or the rebels, even if Germany’s resulting policy was formulated in a rather naïve and unprofessional manner.
The problem is that policies that reflect a quasi-automatic response to the momentary diktat of German public opinion do not represent a coherent whole. The famous saying in Renaissance France, “What woman desires, God wants”, has become, “What the people desire, politicians will deliver”.
Nowhere is this trend from pedagogical responsibility towards demagogic populism more worrisome than in Germany. Europe’s most populous country and largest economy cannot base its policies solely on its public opinion without causing further damage to the performance of the EU as a whole.
Germany has never been more powerful in Europe than it is today – and it has never been less ambitious for Europe. And yet Europe cannot succeed without Germany remaining deeply European.
The problem goes beyond Germany’s current leadership, though its increasing weakness certainly does not help. Germany’s path largely reflects a structural evolution that marks the way Germans now look at Europe.
Yesterday, Europe was the solution for Germany ; today, it is the problem. Yesterday, Europe guaranteed that Germany would never again go astray ; today, it is the impediment that threatens the country’s hard-won financial and economic stability.
Europe’s main challenge today is to keep the European flame alive in Germany. The more distant and neutral to the European project Germany becomes, the more its partners, especially France, must behave like engaged and responsible Europeans. It may not be enough, but without this nothing can be achieved. Or, following the German lead, will a Europe-wide Magna Helvetia become the last European ambition ?