Angela Merkel faces a tough test as Germany goes to the polls. The country seems more inward-looking and nationalistic since the euro crisis. But this shift is both more subtle and not as recent as it appearsby Hans Kundnani / June 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Germany feels misunderstood. It has come under increasing criticism since the extent of Greece’s budget deficit became clear earlier this year. Chancellor Merkel’s initial reluctance to bail out Greece, and subsequent insistence on tough rescue terms, made it seem that Germany was putting its interests before Europe’s.
In Berlin, however, you hear a different view: the Greeks broke the rules agreed when the euro was created, and changing those rules now will damage the currency in the long term. In many of the conversations I have had with German politicians and officials, a defensive tone quickly emerges. They suggest, without quite saying it, that the rest of Europe is picking on them for pursuing their own interests, even though others like Greece are doing so more blatantly. Moreover, Germans feel that they alone are thinking about the long-term future of the eurozone. It seems like a no-win situation: damned if they act and damned if they don’t. “We are leading, but not in the way others want us to,” one senior German government official told me.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Greek crisis is seen to have highlighted an alarming shift in German foreign policy, which has become far more sensitive to domestic opinion. Bild, the nation’s bestselling newspaper, compared Angela Merkel to Bismarck after she rejected a bailout in March, and declared that the Germans were “Europe’s fools” after the EU agreed a €750bn rescue package in May. Some people see echoes of a German power politics that they hoped was a thing of the past. According to Le Monde, President Sarkozy told a friend that the Germans “haven’t changed” as much as we thought.
A complex shift is taking place in German foreign policy. But it actually began much earlier, during the “red-green” government of Gerhard Schröder, who promised to defend German interests in Europe when he was first elected in 1998. “Chancellor Schröder talked more bluntly, more directly and more loudly about German interests in Europe than his predecessors,” says Reinhard Bütikofer, an MEP and former leader of the German Green party. Bütikofer was outraged by the “frighteningly chauvinist tone” of the government during the Greek crisis, but even he thinks that Germany should be able to talk more openly about its national interests than it used to. “It is just a matter of saying how things are,” he says.
By the end of his first term, Schröder…