Clarifying Europe’s choices

She says more Europe. He says less Europe. Let’s call the whole thing off? At the start of this week, the German and British leaders gave their responses to what’s clearly an existential crisis of the post-1945 European project. At the end of this week, they meet in Berlin to see if they can bridge the gap. If they succeed, it’ll be a miracle on the Spree.

Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, Prime Minister David Cameron evoked a Europe “with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc.” “We skeptics,” he averred, “have a vital point. We should look skeptically at grand plans and utopian visions.” This crisis offers an opportunity “in Britain’s case, for powers to ebb back instead of flow away … and for the European Union to focus on what really matters.” In short: less Europe.

“The task of our generation,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told her party conference in Leipzig, “is to complete the economic and monetary union in Europe and step by step to create a political union.” If Europe isn’t doing well, Germany can’t do well, and Europe finds itself in “perhaps its most difficult hour” since the Second World War. The answer must be “not less Europe but … more Europe.” Germany should lead the way toward this “European domestic policy,” with measures including automatic sanctions on euro zone members that can’t or won’t keep their fiscal houses in order.

It needs to be said that Germany didn’t seek this leadership role. When you look out from Berlin’s central railway station toward the Chancellery and the Reichstag, you see, flying from a building between them, the Swiss flag. That’s an accident of history (the building is the Swiss embassy) but also a fitting symbol. What most of today’s Germans want is to be left alone to get rich and live life in their own way: in short, to be a Greater Switzerland.

So here’s the irony. It’s the European monetary union that was intended to bind united Germany to Europe that now almost compels Germany to stomp around telling other European countries what to do. For the Germans reasonably enough say: If we’re going to bail you out by digging into our hard-earned surpluses, we have the right to set conditions. Otherwise, you’ll drag us down into a swamp of debt, deficits and inflation. Ms. Merkel herself has characterized Germany’s dilemma: If we don’t lead, they charge us with lack of European commitment; if we do, they accuse us of throwing our weight around. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

So I welcome the fact that she’s now spelled out a German vision of where Europe should go. Unfortunately, there are two problems with it: one of style, one of substance. The problem of style arises not with Ms. Merkel herself but with other members of her party. Some of us have had a taste of this in private conversations. Now, in a speech by the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary leader, Volker Kauder, we hear it in public. Unsurprisingly, this made the front page of Wednesday’s British papers. The Daily Mail’s banner headline read: Europe Speaks German Now!

Having delivered himself of the line he’ll surely live to regret – “now all at once German is spoken in Europe, not in the language, but in the acceptance of the instruments for which Angela Merkel has fought so long” – Mr. Kauder goes on to lecture and hector not just the Brits but also the French, the Greeks and the Turks. The insufferable tone would be bad enough if the German policy prescription for saving the euro zone were 100 per cent right. But it isn’t. It’s about 70 per cent right – which, in a world of panicking markets, can suddenly become 100 per cent wrong.

At a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Warsaw last week, speakers from all corners of the continent said what virtually every economist outside Germany has been saying. If Berlin is to save the euro zone, then it must show more flexibility in allowing the European Central Bank to support struggling governments (if only indirectly, by lending to the new European Financial Stability Facility) and at least the temporary use of guaranteed euro bonds. If it doesn’t, there may be no euro zone left to save.

Still and all, at least there’s an articulated version of a “German Europe,” so we can point out its flaws. What’s Mr. Cameron’s vision for a “British Europe”? At the moment, purest waffle. He denounces “utopian visions” but says nothing about how his own utopian vision of a “networked Europe” would work. One of his most eloquent supporters, Daniel Finkelstein, writes in The Times that this Europe would be like Microsoft rather than the closed systems of Apple. What on earth does that mean? How would “networked Europe” preserve the benefits Britain wants to keep? How would “networked Europe” relate to a more integrated euro zone? Who would speak for “networked Europe” when it came to negotiations with China?

So I agree with Euroskeptic Charles Moore when he writes in the British weekly The Spectator that Mr. Cameron should seize this moment to spell out his ideas for Europe. Otherwise, everyone else in Europe will conclude he only has a policy for Britain. So here’s a modest proposal to liven up the next European Council meeting, on Dec. 9. Over dinner, let Ms. Merkel present her vision of German Europe and Mr. Cameron his British Europe. Their fellow leaders would vote, by secret ballot, on which they’d rather be part of. Then, of course, the result has to be leaked – something we can still rely on.

Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University.


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