Illustration by Manos Symeonakis
When she contested the German chancellorship in 2005, Angela Merkel angered the Rolling Stones by using their 1973 hit “Angie” as her campaign theme without the band’s permission. Her dominant role during last week’s negotiations in Brussels, where the eurozone members agreed on financial assistance for Greece, has prompted concern throughout Europe that Merkel is going to make a habit of ignoring others’ wishes.
Apart from the connection with her Christian name, “Angie” was a strange song for Merkel’s campaign team to pick. Maybe they just took a calculated gamble that few Germans would pay attention to lyrics such as: “With no loving in our souls and no money in our coats/You can’t say we’re satisfied,” or “All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke.”
These words, however, had a particular resonance over the last few days as Europe appeared to wake up to a new reality in which Germany is no longer willing, as German daily Bild put it, to be “Europe’s paymaster” without shaping the policies that govern how that money is spent. As the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel explained, Merkel’s stubbornness represented a “paradigm shift” for a country that has always been at the heart of European affairs and whose main goal has been not to isolate itself. “Merkel has made it clear that there are German interests and European interests, and that they are not necessarily the same.”
Greece, without any money in its coat, certainly found that Merkel was short of loving in her soul. The German chancellor was adamant that Athens should not be given a cash injection unless it was teetering on the precipice and that the International Monetary Fund should be involved in the bailout. Merkel got her way, and it wasn’t just Greek dreams that went up in smoke. The French had perhaps most cause to be frustrated with her intransigent stance. President Nicolas Sarkozy had been hoping he could lead the EU to new territory – land on which the Europeans could regulate their economic and financial affairs without the help of the Washington-based IMF or anyone else.
The only thing Sarkozy managed to rescue from the dying embers of this grand vision was a commitment for the EU to begin thinking about how the bloc’s economic affairs could be managed centrally. However, even his desire for a so-called EU “economic government” was watered down to “economic governance” in the English wording of the text, largely at the behest of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who has a May general election to fight and does not want to incur the wrath of British euroskeptics. Sarkozy admitted the plan unveiled in Paris last week was the product of “compromise” but it’s clear he was the one doing most of the compromising. The view in France, where Sarkozy is already on shaky ground, especially after his recent drubbing in regional elections, is that Paris failed to defend its vision of Europe. As leading French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi told Le Monde daily: “This plan tells the world that Europe does not want to settle its affairs on its own.”
Even in Germany there were some dissenting voices, unhappy that their country had played tug-of-war with other EU members rather than toeing its usual European line. “Up to recently, Merkel has come across as Dame Europe,” said former Vice-Chancellor Joschka Fischer. “Now she seems to have transformed herself into Frau Germania.” But Fischer finds himself in a minority if the reaction of the German press is anything to go by. For most of the media Merkel was neither dame nor Frau but simply Super Angie. “Merkel has won against all odds… the power play has done Europe a favor, putting the profligate on notice that they have to do their homework and at last impose fiscal discipline rather than counting on Europe to keep them in the style to which they are accustomed,” wrote Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the weekly Die Zeit.
Paul Taylor, an astute observer of European affairs for Reuters, went a step further in analyzing the impact of Merkel’s victory. “The masks have fallen,” he wrote. “From now on, we will all be living in a more German Europe, with economic policy driven by Berlin’s hair-shirt export-or-die model.”
There is no doubt that Merkel’s line in the sand is a significant moment in European affairs but rather than the death-knell for solidarity and cooperation, which it clearly isn’t, we should perhaps see it as another chapter in the ongoing existential tussle that underpins the EU. Since its inception, every single member state, every single leader has had to wrestle with the idea of how much authority, sovereignty and responsibility to hand over from national to European Union hands. No country, not even Germany, is yet comfortable with the idea of sacrificing national interests for European ones. No leader is yet in a position to put the European agenda above a domestic one. Just as Sarkozy and Brown had personal concerns going into last week’s talks, so Merkel needed to stand her ground for domestic reasons. Her center-right coalition’s majority in the upper house is at stake in a May 9 state election in North Rhine-Westphalia and opinion polls have not been favorable.
So, rather than look upon last week’s agreement as a boon for Greece, a defeat for France and a victory for Germany, we should view it as the imperfect but nevertheless tangible outcome of a democratic process the scale of which is unrivalled anywhere in the world. As Lorenzo Bini Smaghi – a member of the European Central Bank’s executive board – admitted, the involvement of the IMF in the aid package was not ideal but was the product of “real politics.” “We live in a world in which second-best solutions are sometimes the most realistic ones,” he said.
It may have been an outcome of an unequal compromise driven by national interests, it may have given the IMF a role in European affairs when it wasn’t absolutely necessary and it may have brought only a vague commitment for better coordinated EU economic management but the Brussels plan is a step toward greater understanding and cooperation between the 27 member states. In a relatively short space of time, the EU has shown it can adapt to fluctuating situations and that there is awareness within the Union that tomorrow’s challenges are likely to require more imaginative thinking and bolder decision-making. Above all though, the commitment made to Greece last week underlines that the EU is still a work in progress – sometimes that progress will be slow, even torturous, but it’s forward motion. And, after all, a rolling stone gathers no moss. Isn’t that right Angie?
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 2.