Is Germany Leading Europe?

My reply to Carnegie Europe’s latest Strategic Question

Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

No country is leading Europe. In fact, Europe is leaderless.

This is the fault not of Chancellor Merkel, but of the weight of history. The idea of leadership—das Führerprinzip—has negative connotations in Germany for obvious reasons. Germany has never had or even sought an exclusive leadership role in Europe. German chancellors have exercised great leadership only when they have had a partner of real weight. Think of Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, or Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand (or even Margaret Thatcher, up to a point).

Today Merkel has no one to partner with. Her alliance with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was an embarrassment, and now the French left under President François Hollande is becoming euroskeptical. The presence of a German-speaking French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has made little difference to Franco-German relations. Merkel is now thinking of her reelection and retirement. Like Hollande, she is struggling with domestic political problems and has no time to think through a strategy for Europe.

The zero-sum game between the many on the left and right who blame Germany for not solving the euro crisis and Germans who blame feckless Southern Europeans for causing it is reducing European politics to playpen level. Too often, German ideas of leadership focus on calls for more Europe, meaning more power for the European Commission or the European Parliament. But this is less and less appealing, and a federal “ever closer union” is yesterday’s story.


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