Sunday

17th Nov 2019

Opinion

The Greek crisis: What's Germany up to?

  • Schäuble and Merkel have different priorities and a different risk assessment in the euro crisis (Photo: Tobias Koch)

If there is one man standing now for the ugly German, it is Wolfgang Schäuble. Ironically, the German finance minister is also the player in the current euro drama who is most dedicated to putting the joint currency on a sustainable footing.

Tonnes of comments have been written in the last weeks about how Germany has put its narrow national interests above the European interest. By turning Grexit into a real policy option, the narrative goes, Schäuble has further damaged Greece and weakened the eurozone.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 year's of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

The only problem with that story is that Schäuble doesn’t fit into the role of the villain. Schäuble is the last political survivor of the Helmut Kohl era. As a German interior minister, he managed the internal aspects of German reunification in 1990. And since his youth, Schäuble, born in 1942 in southwestern Germany close to the French border and the son of a tax adviser, is a firm believer in European integration.

He was the co-author of a legendary paper in 1994 (Schäuble-Lamers Paper), according to which Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg—so-called core Europe—would integrate much faster and more deeply than the rest.

Like his long-term mentor Kohl, Schäuble has always considered the euro to be something like a hidden hand: monetary integration would force the EU to do what member states are reluctant to do—accept that political union, meaning much deeper, almost federal integration, is a historical necessity. Political union meaning a joint budget, taxes, and even eurobonds, sharing liability for debts.

The need to make it work would confront governments with the hard choice of either abandoning the euro or taking a great leap forward toward a federation-like entity, abandoning core elements of sovereignty.

An opportunity not to be wasted

This is where Europe is now, in Schäuble’s view. The Greek crisis was not part of the plan, but it is an opportunity not to be wasted.

For Schäuble, however, deeper European integration can only work with like-minded, well-governed countries. The way the Syriza government in Athens has behaved, rolling back reforms and treating fellow eurozone governments like enemies, convinced him that such integration is unlikely to succeed with Greece.

Schäuble wants to move ahead now because he feels that the eurozone is fragile and that time is running out. His ambition is to become the architect of a eurozone that is viable in the long term, with members that sign up to the same policies and with capable and competent institutions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, by contrast, cares much less about the euro. She doesn’t believe in much closer union; she is an intergovernmentalist, preferring strong member states running the EU rather as a loosely connected club. But at the same time, she has no alternative answer to the euro challenge, that’s why she agrees that to work in the long run, the common currency needs a stronger political and socioeconomic framework shared by members.

Merkel, however, has over time become a big fan of the EU. Schäuble is a typical West German Europhile, seeing the EU as some kind of redemption for a nation state that lost its legitimacy in the Nazi era and needs to be embedded in a strong European Union.

Merkel, by contrast, grew up in East Germany under Communism. It took her quite a while to appreciate the added value of the EU. For her, the big, tangible advantage of the EU is that it allows Berlin to multiply its weight (if it manages to convince its EU partners). Unlike for many Germans who grew up in West Germany, for Merkel the nation-state is not a problem.

But Greece has turned from an internal EU issue into a geopolitical challenge. Merkel has two major concerns: one is the economic future of Europe in a more competitive world; the other is the set of aggressive, neo-imperalist policies pursued by Russian President Vladimir Putin. She fears that a breakdown of order in Southeastern Europe would be exploited by the Kremlin, which seeks to gain influence in what has been termed Europe’s soft underbelly.

And Merkel doesn’t fully believe those experts who claim that the fallout of a Grexit can be contained. For her, the risks of a Grexit leading to an implosion of the eurozone and the euro are not negligible.

Different priorities

Schäuble and Merkel have different priorities and a different risk assessment. That’s why there is sometimes tension. But ultimately Schäuble knows who is in charge. He is trying to advance his agenda but knows where to stop. Keeping Greece in the euro was Merkel’s decision, and he dutifully supported it.

What Merkel did in the latest showdown with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was to use Grexit as a stick to gain leverage.

The more credible the scenario of a Greek exit from the euro, the more likely it would be that Greece would sign off on the conditions set by the creditors for the third bailout.

However, the game is far from over.

The future of the eurozone and of the EU will be decided in many European capitals. Paris and Brussels will be first among them, but Berlin will also be key. Germany has become the EU’s centre of gravity in the last years, because of its own weight and the relative success of its economy, but also because of the country’s deep commitment to the EU.

Unlike in most other EU countries, all major parties in Germany are enthusiastically pro-EU, and the political class still signs up to federalism as the ultimate vision for Europe’s future.

The most likely scenario is further muddling through.

The recent showdown with Greece was damaging. We will hear some talk about further integration, political union, in Paris and Berlin, but the two sides won’t agree on what that means, as in the past. Greece will get its bailout with conditions that are not going to be seriously enforced. There will be grumbling here and there, but everybody will be relieved to go back to business as usual.

Until the next crisis strikes.

Ulrich Speck is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Germany approves talks on new Greek bailout

The Bundestag Friday voted to open negotiations for a third aid programme for Greece but the number of rebel centre-right MPs voting No grew from 29 in February to 60.

Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room

Over the years, both real and perceived levels of corruption in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have remained high. The necessary reforms in those countries, to put it mildly, are not yet effectively carried out.

Israeli labelling ruling lets consumers make choice

Beyond the Israel-specific dimension of this decision, the EU court places ethics back at the heart of European consumer choices and reminds us that our daily, mundane purchases may have considerable and unforeseen geopolitical implications, particularly as regards occupied territories.

Cleaning up both the EU and Western Balkans

There has been little substantial analysis, since the Macron veto, of why so much money and effort in the Balkans has failed to result in the political and economic transformation needed to prepare candidates for full membership.

EU 'all bark and no bite' on disinformation

The list of suspects orchestrating foreign influence campaigns is growing. The likes of China, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia are also tapping into Russia's disinfo playbook.

News in Brief

  1. Catalan politicians extradition hearing postponed
  2. Germany: EU banking union deal possible in December
  3. EIB: no more funding of fossil-fuel projects
  4. UK defence chief: Russia could trigger World War III
  5. Hungary's Varhelyi will face more questions
  6. Police put former Berlusconi MEP Comi under house arrest
  7. MEPs criticise Poland for criminalising sex education
  8. UK will not name new commissioner before election

'A game of roulette' - life as a journalist now in Turkey

Turkey has more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world. The authorities seem to equate journalism with terrorism: everyone has the right to express themselves, but, in their eyes, legitimate journalism is a threat to security.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  3. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  5. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  6. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  7. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  9. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021

Latest News

  1. France unveils new model EU enlargement
  2. Key moments for new commission This WEEK
  3. EU threatens legal action against UK over commissioner
  4. Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room
  5. Green MEPs unconvinced by Romanian commissioner
  6. EU states fell short on sharing refugees, say auditors
  7. Hungary's commissioner-to-be grilled over loyalty to Orban
  8. Widow's plea as EU diplomats debate Magnitsky Act

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us