The Curious Case of German Leadership

By Katinka Barysch

Some of Germany's European partners accuse Chancellor Angela Merkel of refusing, or failing, to lead properly in the euro crisis. Many Germans agree with that analysis and call for Merkel to guide the rescue efforts with a firmer hand and more vision. Just as many, however, think that Germany is actually leading well, and that this is not sufficiently acknowledged. As one opposition politician put it to me during a recent Berlin visit: "Germany is expected to lead, and if we do, we are criticised as arrogant - unless it's in line with what others want." I learnt that the way many Germans define leadership differs from the views that seem to prevail in other EU countries.

Recent remarks by Volker Kauder, head of the parliamentary faction of Merkel's CDU (and the CSU), that Europe was now "speaking German" were crude - and treated as such by much of the German media. But the sentiment behind that statement is quite common. Many in the government say that leadership consists of spreading Germany's 'stability culture' throughout Europe. They point to the fact that Greece is implementing reforms that were unthinkable until recently, that Italy is now run by a man who praises the strengths of the German model and that Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to get re-elected as president by promising to cut the French budget.

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The Germans say they do not want to be the ones who impose austerity and reforms on their neighbours. They clearly do not enjoy being unpopular. And the experience of reunification has shown them how hard it is to salvage an ailing economy (in that case the eastern Länder) even if you can impose your own laws and practices. Merkel's government therefore wants to construct new eurozone rules and institutions - but in a way that spreads and enforces a German vision of a 'stability union'.

Accordingly, the German debate has shifted since the summer. The early debate had been focused on crisis management and blaming profligate South Europeans. Most Germans were spooked by the impression that market pressures were forcing their government into one U-turn after another. Opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier liked to quip about 'Merkel's law': the more fiercely Merkel rules something out, the more certain one can be that it will happen in the end.

In the last couple of months, the German debate has started addressing broader questions about the future of the euro and the EU. Political leaders are queuing up to make big European speeches. Now that the government talks about new treaties and institutions it looks more in charge. Politically, the strategy is working: almost two-thirds of Germans now approve of Merkel's management of the euro crisis, up from 45 per cent in October.

However, the government's vision for Europe is limited so far: a few 'surgical' amendments to the EU treaty to introduce automatic sanctions, take fiscal rule-breakers to the European Court of Justice and allow Brussels to intervene in the budgets of countries that ask for bail-outs. While Germany appears happy for the EU to curtail the sovereignty of countries that spend too much, it is reluctant to accept new constraints itself. During a recent Euro Group meeting, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble obtained written assurances from his counterparts that the reprimands and sanctions of the new 'imbalances procedure' would apply only to countries with deficits, not those with surpluses. Spain in particular had called for more 'symmetric adjustment'. Even economically literate Germans tend to react to such calls with simplistic statements such as "you cannot ask us to reduce our competitiveness and exports" or "we cannot increase our wages artificially to suit the eurozone because we also compete globally".

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Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

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