A Controversial Paragon: Europe Shudders at Germany’s New-Found Power
Germany, admired and envied for its economic success, has become a model for Europe in the debt crisis. The Continent is becoming more German as countries get serious about fiscal discipline. But the nation’s new dominance is also stirring resentment, and old anti-German sentiments are returning.
A French tricolor fluttering on a video screen provides the grand backdrop for Nicolas Sarkozy, who is about to take to the stage to talk sabout the euro crisis. The flag is huge, almost as if the organizers were attempting to allay any doubts that the speaker really is the French president rather than a mere emissary of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
When Sarkozy appeared in front of his supporters in Toulon last Thursday, he spoke of the “fear that France could lose control of its own destiny.” His dramatic words were an appeal to French national pride, but his response to those fears was anything other than nationalist: “France and Germany have decided to unite their fate,” he announced. So-called “convergence” — greater alignment of the two countries — was the only way out of the crisis.
There is no doubt which country wants to align itself with which. Later that day, one of his advisers said Sarkozy wanted “supply-oriented economic policies and debt reduction modeled on those of Gerhard Schröder,” Merkel’s predecessor. In his speech, the president even announced a “jobs summit” between employers and unions just like the one initiated by then-Chancellor Schröder six years ago.
The very next day the French daily newspaper Libération ran an article under the headline “A President Modeled on the Germans,” which claimed “If you closed your eyes, you could hear Merkel speaking” during Sarkozy’s speech.
During a televised interview back in early November, Sarkozy uttered almost unimaginable words for a French president: “All my efforts are directed towards adapting France to a system that works. The German system.”
Speaking in Toulon, Sarkozy condemned the long-established French policy of buying economic growth by simply borrowing more. He said France could only overcome the current crisis through “work, effort, and controlled spending,” objectives that sounded eerily German. Fortunately the tricolor was still fluttering, and the event closed with a rendition of the Marseillaise.
In these days of crisis in Europe, the “German model” has become something of a magic formula. Like it or not, the dusty, dry Germans now seem to hold the key to European salvation.
From ‘Sick Man of Europe’ to Paragon
How has it come to this? For a long time, Germany wasn’t regarded as a model state. The nation has been plagued by guilt since World War II and by economic stagnation since the late 1980s. The Germans saw themselves surrounded by neighbors who seemed to be doing things better: The Scandinavians had their welfare state, the French their family-friendly policies, the Brits had their service industry, and countries to the east had lower taxes. As recently as 2002 Newsweek dubbed Germany “the sick man of Europe,” calling it a country hit by economic strife and unsure about its place in the world.
And yet suddenly, Germany is being held up as a shining example for everyone else. It is almost the only country in the Eurozone that the markets still trust. It is almost the only one that has a history of carrying out far-reaching structural reforms. Almost overnight, Germany has become the de facto center of Europe.