Europe’s directionless leader

Published in (Wellington), 6 October 2020

Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of Germany’s (second) unification. The changes were dramatic for the country itself, perhaps most visibly symbolised when the seat of government shifted from Bonn to Berlin.

However, the new Germany has also had an impact beyond its borders, though not quite in the way it was anticipated.

Unification at once made Germany larger, smaller, stronger and weaker.

In writing this column, I need to make a full disclosure. I grew up in West Germany and was 15 at the time of unification. After receiving my doctorate in 2004, I left to live in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Though I am still “travelling” on a German passport (not so much in these Covid times), I recently lodged my New Zealand citizenship application.

My personal background allows me some nuance. On the one hand, I understand Germany and still follow its debates in its language. On the other, I have now spent more years abroad than in the old West Germany before unification or in the united Germany afterwards. That provides a healthy dose of distance.

But let’s go back to 1990 and remind ourselves of that world. It was a different place. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in its satellite states, the Soviet Union was crumbling. A geopolitical power vacuum was forming in Eastern Europe, and it was bound to be filled by integrating into Western Europe’s political and economic structures. Few people saw the inevitable.

The political leadership in the most important Western countries – Britain, France and the US – was dominated by people who had lived through World War II.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had grown up during the War, and her family briefly housed a Jewish girl who had escaped from Germany. French President François Mitterrand was a German prisoner of war and, after his escape, worked in the underground Résistance. US President George H. W. Bush was an air force pilot in the Pacific theatre who nearly died when his bomber was shot down.

The personal backgrounds of these political leaders mattered. Not just because of the veto power of Britain, France and the US in the UN Security Council. As the winners of World War II, these countries, together with the Soviet Union, shared sovereignty over Germany. To create the new unified Germany, the four powers needed to transfer that sovereignty to it.

Two of the four allied leaders made this process difficult. While Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Bush were positive about unification, Prime Minister Thatcher and President Mitterrand were sceptical or even hostile to the idea.

For both Thatcher and Mitterrand, the question of unification came down to the same trauma. They had both experienced what a big, powerful Germany could do and were afraid it could become a threat once again.

From their perspective, Germany’s division was good because it was effectively neutralised. On one occasion, Mitterrand half-jokingly said “I like Germany so much I would prefer to have two of them.”
Thatcher, meanwhile, held an infamous seminar at Chequers to discuss the grave dangers of German unification with British and American historians. Later, her trade secretary Nicholas Ridley had to resign. He had given an anti-German interview to The Spectator where he undiplomatically accused Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government of trying to take over the whole of Europe.

In the end, both France and Britain agreed to unify Germany. The French got a European monetary union from the deal. By forcing it to give up its Deutsche Mark, the French believed they had strategically weakened Germany’s economic power. Incidentally, that move also calmed British nerves, since Ridley had truly laid out Britain’s annoyance with the Bundesbank’s dominance of European monetary affairs.

Whatever British and French fears remained, Bush and Gorbachev were supportive of unification, not least because of Kohl’s good personal relations with both. The rest was history.

So how did German unification play out strategically?

No German superpower materialised. Germany obviously became a lot larger overnight. However, with that size came not just power but also a great burden. It took a lot of money to rebuild East Germany after 1990. About €2 trillion is the ballpark figure.

The high costs of unification and dealing with the transformation of the East led Germany to look inward. Germany had hardly engaged in international affairs after 1945, and with a mammoth task to be undertaken domestically, its focus did not change. Germany had become larger but tried to keep itself small.

When Germany eventually became entangled in international conflict, first in the Balkans and later in Afghanistan, it typically had to be asked by NATO. Had the decision been Berlin’s only, Germany would probably have stood aside as it had learnt to do over the prior half century.

The decline of the German armed forces is testament to the country’s open disinterest in military options. It speaks volumes that this demilitarisation bothers the US more than it worries the Germans.

The same is true about European economic affairs. Introducing the Euro without a corresponding fiscal equalisation mechanism meant Germany had to step in when problems occurred in the Eurozone’s weakest member states.

Again, Germany was never interested in sorting out Portugal, Italy, Greece or Spain. And had their previous national currencies still been in circulation, these countries would have resorted to devaluations to get their imbalances in order. As they had always done before.

It was only because the Europeans now shared a common currency that Germany had to intervene. Such interventions were unpopular in the European periphery. But they were not popular with the Germans, either. The Germans did not want to intrude, let alone rule. Yet suddenly they had to.

The paradox is a country that is big and powerful but generally disinterested in using that power. Its central location and heavy economic weight contrasts with its inability to even define its own interests, let alone assert them. In Angela Merkel, a counterpoising politician without strong personal convictions, it has found a Chancellor to suit its arbitrariness.

Thirty years after unification, Germany remains a big, little country. A powerless hegemon. A directionless leader.

Then again, that may not be such a bad outcome. Had Thatcher and Mitterrand been right, it might have been worse.