Alphen, Netherlands. 8 November. Otto von Bismarck once said, “I have always found the word ‘Europe’ in the mouths of those politicians who wanted something from other powers they did not dare to demand in their own name”. So often when Germany talks ‘Europe’ Germany means Germany.
Imagine one of those posh Paris restaurants. You sit down ever so slightly nervously because the Maitre D. has given you the strongest possible impression that he will tolerate you only in return for a substantial relieving of the weight in your tattered wallet. Eventually a supercilious waiter waddles over with a menu the size of the Versailles Treaty. You open it. On the left side of the menu is the ‘menu fixe’. This is for those of you (usually) foreign peasantry ‘doing’ Paris who can just about afford a visit but only just about understand the menu – or at least pretend to. On the right hand side page after page of delicacy unfolds for the true gourmand...and that is before you have seen the ‘Carte des Vins’. These pages remind you, the aforesaid foreign peasant, just how far you are from truly deserving of a seat in this palace of cordon bleu.
Now, I stand out against anti-Germanism which is substantial in Europe these days. In particular I avoid references to past wars unless they are relevant to history or today’s politics. However, it can also be hard to be Germany’s friend these days.
Take the EU Services ‘menu’. One thing I regularly hear in Berlin is a complaint that the British seek ‘l’Europe a la carte’ – a European Union in which the British get to choose only the tastiest cuts (and I mean cuts) and discard the rest. To Berlin’s political mind the British should now take the ‘menu fixe’ like all the other EU peasants because only ‘virtuous’ Germany has earned the right to choose from ‘menu Euro-gourmand’ and thus taste the juiciest morsels of European regulatory cuisine.
The most obvious example of Germany’s preference for ‘l’Europe a la carte’ is Berlin’s continued and determined effort to block the Services Directive essential to Britain’s future membership of the EU and the proper functioning of the Single Market. Berlin blatantly protects a sector of its economy in which Germany is weak whilst insisting on unfettered access for German goods and services in sectors where Germany is strong.
Germany’s a la carte preferences are also beginning to upset others. Last week the US Treasury Department attacked Germany’s export-led economic model for preventing the rest of the Eurozone from growing their respective economies out of crisis. According to the Americans a Germany all too happy to export but none too happy to import is distorting not just Europe’s economy but much of the world beyond.
German hypocrisy is also apparent in the lengths Berlin will go to instrumentalise the European Commission for its own narrow interests. Indeed, Berlin has ‘placed’ key officials in the European Commission to act as the Maitre Ds of Europe.
Earlier this year Berlin leant heavily on the European Commission to prevent a directive on carbon emissions that would have damaged the export of expensive German cars to China and other parts of Asia It was a crude example of ‘Germany first’ that revealed all too clearly the shallowness of Germany’s Europeanness; yes to Europe but only on German terms. Most notably Germany’s surplus breaks the Eurozone’s economic governance rules, although as per usual the European Commission will do nothing. Indeed, there is one set of rules for Germany and another German-written set of rules for the rest.
The Eurozone crisis is only at half-time no more. Southern (and some Eastern) European countries must implement painful structural reforms to their societies and economies over many years if the German-centred Eurozone has any chance of long-term health. These reforms will place the fragile democratic and governance structures of these countries under the most intense strain. If Germany continues to preach only discipline but refuses to use its surplus to stimulate growth the Eurozone will in time fail as populations lose patience in their mounting desperation.
Germany has a choice. It can join Britain in pursuit of a Europe-lite which will mean taking the ‘menu fixe’ and radically reducing ever more onerous EU regulations that prevent European businesses competing in a hyper-competitive world and thus growing Europe out of depression. Or, Germany can lead by example to deepen Eurozone and by extension EU integration. To simply go on dining from a menu that whilst tasty leaves Germany and Europe fat and bloated in a lean, mean world will in time destroy the very Europe Berlin pretends to champion.
Is Germany really willing to pay the price of supping at the leader’s table? For too many German politicians ‘Europe’ still in fact means Germany.
Germany a la carte; time for die rechnung!