“The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over. I experienced that in the last a few days, and therefore I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States and in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbours wherever it is possible, also with Russia and also with all the other countries. But we need to know that we have to fight for our own future and destiny as Europeans.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel
Alphen, Netherlands. 30 May. Is this the moment when historians will look back and say that the post-World War Two political settlement was finally dismantled? The moment when Berlin finally crossed the threshold between a European Germany and a German Europe? In a speech at a Munich campaign rally (no, I am not implying a spurious historical ‘allergy’) Chancellor Merkel implied that whilst Germany/Europe (the two are interchangeable in the German political mind) are on the way up, the Americans and British are on their way out, and the Russians must somehow be both in and out at one and the same time. The German hokey-cokey? She is certainly playing with history. In 1949 NATO’s first secretary-general Lord Bruce Ismay is reputed to have said that the purpose of NATO was, “…to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. In fact there is no evidence he did say that. In my book, “A Chronology of European Security and Defence” (Oxford: Oxford University Press), which is of course brilliant and very reasonably-priced, I do not include the quote.
Does she have a point? In spite of the shrill and predictable response to her comments in parts of the media my first reaction is that Chancellor Merkel may have a point in spite of the fact they are driven mainly by her distaste for President Trump. After all, both the US and UK have become increasingly idiosyncratic actors over recent years. As the United States has been forced into a form of strategic isolation it has to an extent also lost its strategic compass – everywhere and yet nowhere all of the time. As once Big Britain has become Little Britain (see my brilliant and very reasonably-priced book at Amazon) London has looked ever more like ‘mini-me’ in an Austen Powers movie.
Does the ‘we’ in this German vision thing really exist? America and Britain stopped being post-war occupiers of the Federal Republic on May 5, 1955, at which point the ‘FRG’ became a fully-fledged NATO member. And, yet for over sixty years first Bonn and then Berlin has wanted the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, ‘in’ Europe precisely to calm concerns that other Europeans might have about German power. Has this suddenly changed? Moreover, one cause of the strategic malaise in both Washington and London has been the refusal of European allies to get serious about security and defence. All the NATO Allies were meant to be in Afghanistan sharing risk and cost together. However, as I saw first-hand most of the European Allies only played at Afghanistan, Germany to the fore. Is ‘Europe’ really about to become a serious security actor under German leadership?
Is Europe willing to bear the full cost of German leadership? If Chancellor Merkel really is implying that now is the moment when Europeans, in the rubber-stamping guise of the EU, really should replace US with German leadership in defence (Germany has long been the financial and economic leader of ‘Europe’) then she must be under no illusion as to the cost. A Europe that could defend itself would demand each EU member-state spend not 2% GDP on defence but 3% GDP on defence at the very minimum and irrespective of how deep future political integration. Believe me, I am an expert.
Is Germany willing to bear the full cost of German leadership? It is this issue of the cost to Germany that reveals the bluff in Chancellor Merkel’s remarks. Let’s say Germany did decide to ‘lead’ European defence by spending, say, 2% GDP on defence in line with the NATO Defence Investment Pledge. That would in turn mean Berlin spending $70 billion on defence, some $15 billion more than the UK. At this past week’s GLOBSEC conference I put that to senior Europeans from across the continent. Almost all expressed doubts whether that would be possible for Germany or even desirable, with the most concerned being themselves German!
Can Germany afford to lead Europe? Germany did exceedingly well out of the Euro in the wake of its creation in 1999 because the Eurozone was a de facto zollverein that boosted German exports by offsetting high production costs. At the time Berlin actively encouraged the spending binge by other Europeans on German products to help Germany’s economy recover. That was then, this is now. Real German leadership would thus see Berlin today agreeing to debt mutualisation, i.e. to share the debts of all other EU member-states in order to enable millions of fellow Europeans to escape growth-killing debt. And yet Germany’s ‘Europeanness’ seems to come to a firm stop at the border between German money and European debt with the rather lame excuse offered that Berlin cannot be responsible for errors made elsewhere. In other words, Berlin clearly understands that the cost of German leadership to Germany would be astronomical.
Will Germany ever escape history? World War Two still runs deep through European politics, and nowhere more so than in Germany. For example, when European leaders talk about immigration they do so haunted by the Holocaust. Even though there clearly was no link Chancellor Merkel’s disastrous ‘wir schaffen das’ open door migration policy was driven in part by her sense that Germany had a chance to make making amends for a past disaster. Sadly, two disasters do not a sound strategy make.
Can Europe survive German angst? When German leaders talk European defence they are haunted by Germany’s past. Even though Germany is a completely different place today than the Germany of the past German leaders are still acutely sensitive (and rightly so) to Old Germany’s role in both world wars. Unfortunately, the practical security and defence of contemporary European citizens still too often gets lost in the ether of historical angst. As Germany comes to dominate Europe (ever so nicely) so the many angsts from which German leaders suffer are also being imposed on Europe.
Which brings me to the real paradox of Chancellor Merkel’s comments. In 2005 I landed myself in trouble (and not for the first or last time) when I wrote in the International Herald Tribune that for fifty years the US and UK had told Germany not to do too much because of World War Two, but for the past ten years Germany has told the US and UK it cannot do too much because of World War Two. If Germany leads Europe too much Germany itself will reignite the very ‘German question’ that Berlin has tried so hard to avoid for so long; how can powerful Germany be legitimately embedded in weak Europe?
The hard truth is that ‘unreliability’, or rather a lack of automaticity in transatlantic relations, is the new normal - Trump or no Trump. Whilst the Americans and British are indeed perhaps less reliable as allies than they once were, Germany can also be pretty unreliable when it suits. This is because Berlin lacks any real sense of solidarity, is clearly unwilling to bear the real cost of European leadership, and too often confuses the European ‘interest’ with the German ‘interest’. And, it is not at all clear that other Europeans are willing to accept German leadership all of the time. Until that changes Germany will continue to play the game of pretend leadership in Europe as Chancellor Merkel did this week and in so doing reinforce the sense of mainstream political failure which the ‘populists’ are only too happy to exploit.
A German Europe or a European Germany? The simple truth is that contemporary Europe needs contemporary German leadership, but German leadership also needs America and Britain. This is for the sake of Europe, but above all for the sake of Germany.
So, whilst ‘Europe’ really does need Germany up, it also needs America and Britain alongside, with Europe as a whole finally getting its security and defence act together. Russia? For the moment 'out', at least until Moscow stops playing silly strategic buggers.