Europe’s pandemic and the price of solidarity
The Covid-19 crisis has revealed the full extent of Europe’s power imbalance
If ever there was a reluctant power, surely it is Germany: a nation that has grappled with its past and still restively searches for understanding. A nation that has worked hard to unite two economically and politically disparate halves that even today can feel like different countries.
Since reunification in 1989, Europe has believed desperately in Germany’s rehabilitation as a global power. Somehow, Germany’s redemption was Europe’s redemption: something necessary for the continent to move on from the destruction wrought by centuries of war.
Restoring the Germany of enlightenment values and scientific achievement was fundamental to the broader European identity, which has always been shaped by bursts of romanticist pride. These have manifested themselves often in a moderate liberal nationalism, and sometimes in a darker, more intolerant, more resentful form.
That the whole of Europe indulged in ecstatic forms of political culture at some point or other is reflected in the artwork and literature produced throughout the span of the 19th century. Jacques-Louis David’s majestic portrait of Napoleon atop his horse, pointing the way through the Alpine pass as men haul guns up the mountain slope, is no more evocative than Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Both have been incorporated seamlessly into the French national psyche without a hint of cognitive dissonance.
For a region characterised by constant war and tenuous diplomatic arrangements, it is easy to see why Europe walked such a fine line between reason and emotion. But was it the perpetual conflict that gave birth to what Nietzsche described as the krankheit (sickness) of romanticism? Or was it the spiritual brooding of the European mind that created such toxic exuberance?
If the latter were a possibility, then it was essential that Germany’s second republic be founded firmly on classical values: rationality, equality, and scientific endeavour. Everything good about the old Prussian model should remain: a highly proficient civil service, egalitarian institutions, and the education system that gave birth to modern schooling. The rest: the ugly militarism, the obsession with unity and territorial expansion, and the parvenu attitude towards the established powers of Europe, should go.
The restoration of German power was awkward, and not just for Germany. The insecurity of its neighbours is evident even today. It is telling that French President Emmanuel Macron, when searching for something that could help him regain his political footing, turned to a very unlikely source: a previously obscure history of the Battle of Sedan, which took place in 1870–1 between Napoleon III’s France and Bismarck’s Prussia. What struck Macron in this account was not the nature of the battle itself, but rather its aftermath and enduring effect on French thought.
According to literary historian Claude Digeon, the Battle of Sedan led to a ‘German complex’ among French intellectuals. The battle dealt a profound injury to French confidence and sparked a 150-year obsession with Germany. Today, as the Macron presidency sinks further into the sand, comparisons with Germany are still unavoidable, and they form the basis of French introspection.
As the Covid-19 crisis worsens, the more unflattering the comparison becomes. The French assumption was that German fiscal rectitude meant its health system was workable but constrained, while France’s financially liberated model was the envy of the world. The virus has put paid to this illusion. The state apparatus, with the president as all-knowing regent, is being subjected to intense criticism. The Jacobin state, that seeks to centralise everything from schools to public transport, seems to have burnt itself out.
Macron’s flash-in-the-pan liberalism simply cannot compare to the sheer permanence of Angela Merkel’s ever-evolving political project. Only Russia’s neo-Tsar Vladimir Putin has been around longer. In every election year, the German people have found a reason not to explore an alternative. Would-be rivals have quietly excused themselves from the contest. Despite the various political upheavals that have shaken Germany over the past decade — terrorism, climate change, immigration, and the increasing radicalisation of politics in the East — Merkel has been deemed the one best placed to manage it.
Macron is not the first to feel a sting of anxiety over Germany. Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s fears of an overmighty Germany emerging from the ash of 1945 seems today a small-minded attempt to hobble the process of reconciliation that all parties deeply desired. After all, with its technological prowess and genius for statecraft, what hope would the world have of rebuffing Germany’s resurgence?
Thatcher’s pledge to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “we do not want a united Germany” echoes hollowly. That the fall of the Berlin Wall — one of the most triumphant moments in human history — could be a double-edged sword for freedom and stability in Europe is unthinkable today. It was argued only by the hardest-headed realists of the time, and even they could see clearly where the tides of public sentiment were flowing. The priority was to get Germany back into the international order.
The EU of the 21st century represents the consummation of this decades-long healing process. However, the great lie is that the EU — once stripped of its budget, the office of the European President, the monetary institutions, and the closed-door policy making of the European Council — is at its core a union of equals.
This lie can be obscured at times when unemployment is trending down, and bond markets are knocking on the doors of periphery economies desperate for high-yielding assets. But Europe is no stranger to crises, and when they inevitably come around, the power differentials become acutely conspicuous. Smaller members suddenly find themselves negotiating with the ‘institutions’, who offer monetary reprieve bundled with invasive economic surgery. Meanwhile, the ultimate arbiter of bailout conditions is the German Bundestag, which sits aloof from the entire process.
The pillar of the EU’s response to the pandemic is a €750 billion program funded by debt issued collectively by the EU. It was cooked up in Berlin and Paris and, while there was debate over the approach, the outcome seemed inevitable. The European Commission is asking Germany to contribute more for the corona bailout, amounting to an additional €13 billion. Germany may negotiate, but like a Roman patrician family greedy for the good favour of the city, it will ultimately oblige.
As the largest economy of the EU-28, and the biggest net contributor to the EU budget by far, political power naturally gravitates towards Berlin as much as towards Frankfurt and Brussels. One element of German power is its fiscal ‘benevolence’. Whether Germany is really placing treasure in heaven when it sinks money into bailout funds is a question many leaders have asked themselves, but it means Germany is seen as the great preserver of European federalism from would-be breakaways like Greece.
Germany’s wheeling and dealing has produced a number of high-profile causalities, including on its own side. The President of the German Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, was a contender to replace Mario Draghi as President of the European Central Bank, a role that would have required him to consciously moderate his inherently German view on money and inflation. His hopes were scuppered when Merkel did a deal with Macron to move a potential domestic rival in Ursula von der Leyen into the European Presidency. In exchange, France got its pick for the ECB, which saw Christine Lagarde take the monetary reigns.
The main takeaway for the European press was that this girl-power moment was a positive step forward for EU politics. That the results were a blatant stitch up between the two major powers was wilfully ignored. As of 1 July, Merkel herself joins the club of EU officeholders as President of the Council of the EU, a position that rotates every six months among the heads of government. The timing is impeccable.
German power is a paradox: the more power Germany possesses, the harder it is to wield. It needs other bidding countries to bolster its cause. For this reason, a general pretence of civility and consensus must prevail. But behind the scenes, expect Europe’s response to Covid-19 to be stamped by Merkel’s authority.
Who knows whether Europe can ever truly overcome its history. Maybe one day, after the world has stopped replaying the events of the 20th century over and over in its head, Europe can reach an accommodation that serves the interests of all. Perhaps then it can contend with Germany as a country with every right to hold its own interests at heart, but also as a power that needs to be checked from time to time by its neighbours.
It is questionable, however, whether this can happen within the straitjacket of the EU’s institutions, which places Germany inexorably at the centre of European affairs. Some, like the United Kingdom, have simply walked away. For others, it is not so simple. There is a strong psychological need to stay wedded to the political project that is European solidarity. How far they will be prepared to take it is unclear, but with every crisis the commitment is tested, and the cost becomes harder to bear.