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A Bridge Too Far

By Brian Cronin:

Continuing my tour around Europe, after a look at Spain and Italy, this week it’s Germany’s turn. Germany, as a nation, has had a checkered history as we know all too well. Two hundred years ago, it was a collection of small kingdoms. In 1797 Joseph Haydn composed the music for what would eventually become the Deutschlandlied.  The words were not written until 1841 by Hoffman von Fallersleben. It only became the national anthem in 1922.

Since the end of the Second World War, the first two verses are not sung and only the third verse is used starting with “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit für das deutsche Vaterland” (Unity and Justice and Freedom for the German fatherland). The words, daring and revolutionary for their time, signified a call to unify the small kingdoms into a cohesive whole and to stop the arbitrary nature of contemporary political life in the 1840s.

The well known words of the first verse “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (Germany, Germany above everything) have an unfortunate connotation of course. However, instead of the popular conception of its meaning as being political domination over the whole world, it was really a call to put Germany as an idea ahead of everything else and put aside the petty jealousies and conflicts of the constituent kingdoms. The first verse also delineates the borders of a Germany that no longer exists so it made no sense to incorporate it into the anthem of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Apart from being a fascinating piece of historical trivia, it does also provide a backdrop to the current goings-on in Europe. That call to put and keep Germany above everything else has been tested by the stresses and strains of the European Union and the more wayward, economically and fiscally challenged southern members.

Initially designed by its former enemies to contain any possible German expansion, the European Union also acted as vehicle to rehabilitate Germany and bring it back into the community of nations. The Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, engineered by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard, put Germany at the top of the heap and in marked contrast to its other European partners.

Germany has become the anchor, the mainstay of Europe, and it surely does not want to see its accomplishments squandered by being the good neighbor to the profligate and brain-fried nations along the Mediterranean. This is, essentially, the problem that Chancellor Angela Merkel now faces. She has to wait for the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the European Stability Mechanism that would fund any bailout and Germany’s share in it. That decision is not expected before September 12.

Some members of her coalition are openly talking about forking over more money to Greece as being just a complete waste of time, “like pouring water into the desert”. A Greek departure, for example, no longer holds the terror it once did. Markus Söder is the  Bavarian Finance Minister and a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU) which is the sister party to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a crucial part of Frau Merkel’s coalition government. He opined recently that Greece should leave the euro by the end of the year, according to his calculations, adding that “Athens must become an example demonstrating that this eurozone also has teeth”. So there is discontent in the ranks.

While other ministers quickly distanced themselves from these incendiary comments, it is true that they seem to reflect more and more the feeling in the country that it is just not worth throwing good money after bad. The sentiment seems to be one of “we work hard so the rest of Europe doesn’t have to” and Germans are not thrilled at being taken advantage of.

That said, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is trying to organize a joint appearance with several former foreign ministers from different parties in an attempt to shore up support for the euro and warn that a retreat from Europe would be disastrous for Germany where growth is already slowing.

Frau Merkel has to tread a fine line of holding it all together without jeopardizing her political base. A little over a year from now, there is a federal election and she has to be mindful of that and where her support will come from. She does not have a lot of room for maneuver.

Greek PM Samaris visits Germany this coming week and he is expected to ask for a two year extension for compliance with the austerity measures demanded by the troika bankers. Frau Merkel, for her part, will push Greece to keep its promises. Any inclination to be generous with the time frame will be met with howls of protest from her colleagues and her opposition who will remind her of the increasing cost to taxpayers and the forthcoming report from the troika bankers which is not likely to be optimistic. Any future monies are thus unlikely and it advances the possibility of a Greek bankruptcy.

This brings up a wider question as to whether the European idea/ideal is still worthwhile or whether the magic has gone out of the whole complicated relationship. The rate of divorce in most western countries is something like 50%, an astounding statistic. The reason for most breakups is usually money, or the lack of it, or the unrestrained spending of it. It may be something that Frau Merkel has contemplated over the past few months. The question is, should they stay together for the sake of the kids (future generations yet unborn), go for marriage counseling (who, exactly, is a knotty problem) or just cut their losses and go on to other relationships?

Maybe the answer is a referendum and there has certainly been talk of that recently in Germany just as there has in Great Britain. But, as always, it depends what you ask in a plebiscite, and how you ask it. To use the analogy above, maybe the “marriage counselor” is the whole German people. Getting out of the whole deal is one thing but the tricky part for Frau Merkel is that in order to make the whole eurozone idea work, it could involve getting Brussels more heavily involved in the lives of every German – “more Europe”. That might be a bridge too far and test the limits of the German constitution and its sovereignty. The Constitutional Court is already ruminating about the legality of the European Stability Mechanism and one difficult issue maybe enough for now. Stay tuned.