In recent years, Germany came to be seen as one of the few forces for good in the world: it took over a million refugees from Syria and other countries ravaged by war or simply poor; it led in the struggle against climate change and emissions, in particular after the Fukushima disaster, when it decided to close down all its nuclear reactors; it became the most influential and arguably the most successful country in the European Union, positioning itself as the moral leader after Brexit; and no less importantly, in a world dominated by men like Trump, Putin and Erdogan, it has been firmly under the guidance of a woman, Angela Merkel, for the past 15 years. One could be forgiven for concluding that Germany is the real beacon of progressivism and a model of hope for the future of the world. The European Union too is now under the leadership of the German woman, Ursula von der Leyen, a former Family and Defense Minister under Merkel.
The recent dealing of the latest emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, has left many in Europe very unhappy and there is a widespread feeling of anger at Germany. Countries like France, Italy and Spain were asking for the issuing of special European bonds to share the burden of the costs to tackle the crisis, which has been referred to by many as the most difficult since the Second World War. For countries like Germany and Holland, sharing the future debt with their Southern European partners was not an option and they made it very clear: European solidarity was one thing, but the so-called corona bonds represented a dangerous territory they were not willing to go into. Germany’s refusal was uncompromising. Eventually, after more than two weeks of talks, it got its way, with countries in need now having to resort the European Stability Mechanism for funds. One prominent German daily, Die Welt, argued that the Italian mafia was waiting impatiently for the “shower of money” coming from Brussels. Italians are, understandably, enraged.
This is just the latest example of a quality that many, in places as different as Italy, Greece, Hungary or Poland, have come to associate with Germany: a sense of unshakeable self-assurance of someone who always knows what’s best, not just for oneself, but for everyone else, and is unable and unwilling to compromise on anything, because the positions of the others are simply dismissed as irrational and absurd. This sort of arrogance, to make things worse, often comes with a healthy dose of moralising, as if Germany was the only adult in the room, dealing with a large number of loud and unruly children.
Germany was alone, with the exception of Sweden, on the issues of refugees 5 years ago, when it decided to open its doors to millions coming from Syria through Turkey, from Africa through Libya and Italy. Arguably moved by a spirit of humanitarianism in front of pictures of drowning children, its policies of accepting anyone with a potential asylum claim may have actually increased the chances of people putting their lives in serious danger trying to cross the sea on light dingies to reach the promised land of “Mother Merkel”. The fact that Germany itself had a quick change of mind after only a few months of the experiment, and reached a deal with Erdogan to keep many more millions refugees in Turkey did not change much in the perception of the events: Germany had resources in excess and wanted to save world – other countries that were not so enthusiastic about the prospect of mass immigration with little control must have been in the hands of nationalists and racists. None of the problems put the smallest grain of doubt in Germany’s unshakeable certainly that Germans and only Germans were doing the right thing.
Even before the latest coronavirus crisis, countries in Southern Europe were still suffering the consequences of the recession in 2008-2009 and the subsequent euro crisis. Germany’s policy of austerity, focussed on budget cuts, in order to reform states that were far too profligate, arguably made things worse, crippling the economies of these countries for a decade – but Germany was having none of it.
There may be in the EU at the moment no country that is more pro-EU than Germany. The reasons for this unconditional support are many. In a way, Germany, the EU largest economy and driving force, is the EU. But power makes one stupid, as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued, looking at the mood of blind triumphalism that followed the unification of Germany under the Iron Chancellor Bismark in 1871. Germany’s stubbornness and the inability and insensitivity to see the damage it does has already alienated many within the European Union. From Poland to Italy, passing through Brexit and Marie Le Pen in France, the rise of what has been dismissively labelled nationalism and populism can be seen as a reaction to German dominance in Europe. The greatest danger to the EU is not Russian propaganda, as many would like you to believe, but Germany’s unbounded arrogance.
Stefano Di Lorenzo