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World 21/06/2017

The crucial question for Europe: what does Germany want?

Can the EU superpower continue as normal after Brexit?

Determining where power lies today in Europe is no particularly hard feat. With the largest population, the biggest — and by far more robust — economy and no qualms about throwing its weight around, Germany and its Chancellor Angela Merkel sit at the helm of the Union and stir it towards… well, we don’t exactly know. But the German influence in Brussels is unquestionable, and so is the existence of a vision.

This month, two books that perhaps not accidentally investigate these two sides of the emergence of a German Europe are published by two authors who couldn’t perhaps be more different: Adults in The Room is the latest book by the economist and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who rose to international prominence during the 2015 negotiations between the country’s lender and the newly elected SYRIZA government. Berlin Rules on the other hand, is brought to us by Paul Lever, Britain’s former ambassador to Berlin, a diplomat who carries the traditional British of view on foreign policy of careful and incremental change — the direct opposite to Varoufakis’ barnstorming approach that decorated the frontages of the international media for several months.

While one might reasonably expect that these two books would arrive to radically different conclusions, their common pursuit of the overarching issue of “What does Germany want?”, serve to reveal both how the Germans think about Europe and how they go about it. And their conclusions are remarkably consistent.

In Conversations Of Goethe, Johann Peter Eckermann records that in his correspondence with the great philosopher, the former remarked that “The French and English […] keep far more together, and guide themselves one by another. They harmonise in dress and manners. They fear to differ from one another, lest they should be remarkable, or even ridiculous. But with the Germans each one goes his own way, and strives to satisfy himself; he does not ask about others, for, as Guizot rightly observes, he has within him the idea of personal freedom, from which, as I have said, comes much that is excellent, but also much absurdity.”

“For Germany a political union by no means includes an economic one”

The book, published in 1836, paints a picture of a Germany before the nightmare of Nazism. It also speaks of a society markedly different to the one we see today. Paul Lever’s Berlin Rules, written with great clarity and not a small amount of admiration for modern Germans, the writer notes “what is surprising is that in the process of rejecting the inheritance of National Socialism, Germany has also, it seems, turned its back on the rest of its past as well.”

In this new Germany, unlike the pictured painted by Goethe, public opinion seems to be very consistent on its vision of the future of the EU and its relationship with the country. Lever points out that consistently, the German public is supportive of the EU, as a means to quell nationalist feeling and make sure the 30’s never happen again. In this spirit, there is broad support of a political union and “ever closer union”.

“The EU and the Euro, have brought Germany huge economic advantages. The political structures and priorities of the EU reflect those of Germany itself” notes Lever. “What is strange however is the uncritical nature of their professed commitment to more European integration, their reluctance to spell out what such integration might eventually mean and the huge gulf between what they say about Europe and how they behave within it”.

For Germany, as the former ambassador's book makes clear, a political union by no means includes an economic one. The EU can never be a “transfer union” in which the surpluses of richer states are used to subsidise the deficits of poorer ones. Germany should be allowed to run however high surpluses and what weaker economies should do is to emulate their system and enjoy its benefits. But as anyone with even a faint grasp of economics can attest to, it’s impossible for everyone to save at the same time. Not everyone can have a surplus while using the same currency which is very much tailored on the deutschmark model (by design) of low inflation and high market value — Good for Germany, bad for the south of the continent. As Marcus Walker, former Europe Economics editor at the Wall Street Journal recently put it “Germans think they can keep saving and hope that someone else will buy their cars”.

Instead, the form of a political union that Germany is seeking takes the form of rather technical powers given to Brussels, like the ability to veto national budgets that don’t adhere to the German-inspired rules, and are perfectly suited to their pursuits.

This brings us to Yanis Varoufakis’ Adults in the Room and takes us from Berlin to the Belgian capital and to Athens. Varoufakis’ book is written in a riveting fashion, a tell-all political memoir that reads like a thriller rather than cool-headed analysis.

Putting aside the fact that the author spends much of his time in the introduction using metaphors from ancient Greek tragedies and Shakespeare to illustrate his points (something that editors would have surely cracked down on wasn’t it written by this now world-famous motorcycle riding maverick), Varoufakis describes how he became close to Greece’s PM Alexis Tsipras, but also how SYRIZA, like any other party, has its own internal politics and power plays. He holds particular scorn for the governor of the Bank of Greece Yiannis Stournaras, whom he considers the culprit for the bank run and the the capital controls that followed it in 2015.

What’s more interesting is what he describes taking place in Brussels. There, Varoufakis arrives to the same conclusion as Lever: Germany is the key player and Wolfgang Schauble controls the European Commission and the Eurogroup (an unofficial instrument that includes all of the Finance Ministers of the Eurozone).

From this moment on, and if you’ll excuse me the Game of Thrones metaphor, Varoufakis becomes the Eddard Stark of politics. While he can clearly see the intrigues unfolding around him, he is never on top of them, and puts his trust in the wrong places. In the end, like Stark, he loses his head. His failure for instance to see the extent to which Wolfgang Schauble favoured “Grexit” is one such example. More than once while reading I thought “No Yanis, don’t trust him!”

“With Britain leaving the EU, Germany is forced to actually decide what it wants to be”

But what mostly emerges from this memoir is the extent to which European institutions are now tied up to the German non-vision and ordoliberal economics. In a recent interview Varoufakis identified the reason for France’s superficial loss of power inside the EU.

Talking about current President of France Emannuel Macron — one of very few people that come out in a positive light from this book — he said that it’s not so much that France has lost its power, but that its elites are entirely in line with those of Germany and happy to let them take the lead.

As Britain heads to Brussels to negotiate Brexit, there is rich material for study here. The strategic leaks, the negotiations going on for ungodly amounts of time, the spin and sometimes outright lying, is something we will most definitely see a lot of in the next few years.

But the final lesson from this book is what happens now to the German vision. With Britain leaving, in which Berlin loses a valuable ally with whom it agreed on much politically and economically until recently, Germany is forced to actually decide what it wants to be. Will it lead Europe and push towards a more equitable future in solidarity or simply seek to micromanage it and further its own interests?

As Varoufakis points out in several occasions, the latter breeds discontent the results of with we’re witnessing across the continent with the rise of populism and the strengthening of even outright fascist parties like the Front Nationale in France. But has Germany come to terms with its own destiny? Do they even want it at all? Or is it content with its role as a country with a healthy economy that refuses to exercise power beyond its narrow interests, even denying to itself that it possesses it?

In another letter included in Conversations Of Goethe, the philosopher says “While the Germans are tormenting themselves with the solution of philosophical problems, the English, with their great practical understanding, laugh at us, and win the world”. But the times have changed. While other European nations sunk into existential and identity crises over their economic and cultural stagnation, Germany went ahead and rebuilt its economy and society. It is now perhaps time to don the philosopher’s hat that Goethe spoke of, again, and come up with some solid ideas about what the future looks like.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist whose work has appeared in Politico, the LRB, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, the New Statesman and others. He has spent too long covering the Greek crisis.

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    He has also written for The Guardian, NME, The Wire, When Saturday Comes and Uncut, and was a presenter of the Resonance FM football show Café Calcio.

    David is the author of numerous books, including Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko but Don’t Get Stockhausen. His latest book is Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany.