While browsing the media these days, one could get the impression that there is only one obstacle in solving the euro crisis: Germany. The German conservative-liberal government under the leadership of chancellor Angela Merkel is criticized on all sides for its euro crisis management as being too reluctant, too egoistic and, as the leader of the eurozone countries, Luxembourgian Jean-Claude Juncker, has put it, “un-European”.
And the investor icon George Soros took the same line stating that Germany “is bearing a major of responsibility” for the crisis. Polish finance minister Jacek Rostowski warned that a German mishandling of the crisis could lead to a collapse of the Euro. Even more drastic in their choice of words, British commentators joined this choir of naggers and carpers straightaway. Simon Heffer, for example, is afraid of Germany conquering Europe and establishing a Fourth Reich by its strategic crisis management. And former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown – full of irony – advised Germany to accept Eurobonds to save the eurozone.
But all these critical comments and at times hilarious polemics miss one point. By addressing harsh criticisms to the German government in a more or less superficial way, detractors of German crisis management ignore basic assumptions behind the German political actions – and of European integration philosophy in general.
It was nearly three weeks ago when German chancellor Merkel and French president Sarkozy held their bilateral summit in Paris to talk about the euro crisis. During the press conference, Merkel and Sarkozy called for a “true euro economic government” to meet at least twice a year and lead by the president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy. Eurobonds, according to Sarkozy, could be imagined at a later date, when the institutional settings are clear. Moreover, a transaction tax, constantly called for by the German government, was agreed upon. And both parties decided to introduce what is called a “debt-brake” (Schuldenbremse) in German political parlance for all eurozone members.
These steps are remarkable but not really surprising if we take a closer look at German European policy of the past twenty years. It was in the mid 1990s when present German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble and a former spokesman for foreign affairs of the Conservative Party reflected on the future of Europe. In their report, both politicians supported the idea of a Core Europe comprising those states willing and capable of acting to deepen and accelerate integration. These states – the allowedly variable core – would then constitute the driving forces of European integration. And, albeit any politician would call a spade a spade, European integration history offers us some concrete examples of this concept with the adoption of the European single currency and the creation of a eurozone as the most evident ones. Further examples can be found in policy areas such as the European Security and Defence Policy with its permanent structured cooperation and the creation of a European Defence Agency or the
Schengen area. Even though Merkel is constantly repeating that the creation of a Core Europe is not intended, for instance right after the Irish rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in 2008 when she stated that “considerations of a Core Europe or a two- speed Europe are not helping at this point”, the German-Franco proposal of a eurozone government is indeed creating such a kind of Core Europe. And it was again Germany’s minister of finance, who reinforced the idea of a Core Europe calling for major treaty reforms to deepen integration by communitarising financial and fiscal policies of the member states.
Given these recent developments, Germany and France underline their position as the hard core of the EU. Both countries are in the driver’s seat right now. They pursue a step-by-step strategy to put Europe’s economy on solid grounds by strengthening the Union’s institutional set-up. But they do not put the pedal to the metal. This is much truer for the German government. Markets might react faster than politicians. But German European policy has never been a result of hasty, inconsiderate actions. It rather focused on long-term developments. German euro crisis management is therefore neither a result of a lacking sense of German Europeanness nor is it the consequence of a German financial imperialism. German crisis management rather signifies a basic concept of European integration: And that is the idea of a Core Europe.