Germany has never found the leadership of Europe easy to attain or to execute. And yet Germany today finds itself the unrivalled leader of the European Union. Can Germany for once get leadership right?

Only at the very 1871 beginning of modern Germany’s uneasy existence was Berlin led by a man who grasped both the possibilities and dangers of German power. The very creation of the then German Empire rocked the rickety European balance of power to its core. And yet somehow Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck steered Germany (relatively) peacefully through a minefield of competing European interests. With his dismissal in 1890 by an unbalanced Kaiser Wilhelm II Germany and Europe began the long slide towards the twin and linked catastrophes of World Wars One and Two.


Today Germany is back. It would be easy to think that the ‘sudden’ emergence of Germany as Europe’s natural leader is a consequence of the Eurozone disaster. In fact Germany has been slowly recovering its position at the centre of European power politics since 1945. And yes power politics still exist in Europe even if masked by the political correctness of Euro-speak. The Eurozone Summit Statement of 26 October simply made German leadership official.

The facts speak for themselves. The 2011 German economy at $3.3 trillion or €2.5 trillion is at least 30% bigger than that of either France or Britain and thanks to reforms in the mid-naughties structurally far more efficient than either. At 81,729,000 the educated German population is again 30% bigger than the two other members of the EU’s so-called ‘Big Three’. Critically, Germany is the world’s second largest exporter with exports accounting for some 33% of national output. For all the current German angst the Euro has been the great German wealth creator. Indeed, Germany’s 2011 trade surplus stands at $20.7 billion or €15.2 billion, some 66% of that exports to its indebted Eurozone partners. Quite simply, the Euro has offset the high cost of German production and created a customs union (Zollverein) for German exports, which was Germany’s 1914 war aim.

So, the EU has done for Germany what two disastrous wars could not, cement Germany as the natural leader of Europe and by extension supplant Britain as the natural European strategic partner of the United States. But here’s the rub; just when Europe needs decisive German leadership Berlin is unable to deliver. Indeed, having gained the power and influence that her political forebears dreamed of not-so-Iron Chancellor Merkel is probably incapable of exercising it either for the good of Germany or Europe.

First, the German Constitution is a direct descendent of the 1948 settlement imposed by the victorious allies upon a defeated Germany. Its very purpose is to prevent the concentration of power in one set of political hands in one Berlin place at any one time. Consequently, Chancellor Merkel possesses nothing like the domestic political authority of either President Sarkozy or Prime Minister Cameron.

Second, the current generation of German leaders are the heirs of a political culture that was so successfully ‘de-nazified’ they still find the concept of German leadership at worst abhorrent or at best uneasy. The whole point of German power is not to have strategic influence, especially of the ‘nasty’ military variety and especially over other Europeans. Germany will thus endeavour to ‘rule’ through the European Commission.

Third, having gained more from the Euro than any other EU member-state the German people are not at all interested in paying to rescue it, demonstrating the limits to their (and Germany’s) ‘Europeanness’. This explains Chancellor Merkel’s reluctance to let the European Central Bank act as the lender of last resort to the Euro-rule-breaking southern Europeans. It also explains her efforts to get countries that have far poorer GDPs per capita to pay for the still-born European Financial Stability Facility.

Equally, there are signs that Germany is slowly re-learning the art of Realpolitik. The opening of the Nordstream gas pipeline last week suggests a new strategic energy relationship with Russia which will concern Central and Eastern European states. The democracy-defying Franco-German presumption of Eurozone leadership suggests that Berlin might be overcoming some of its power reticence. And, the implicit anti-Britishness that has long been a factor in German foreign and security policy has been evidenced by the effective exclusion of the EU member-states with Europe’s strongest financial market from Franco-German leadership of this first order European crisis.

Consequently, Berlin and London are now on collision course. On 14 November both Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron made speeches calling for fundamental reform of the EU. However, whilst Merkel called for “…not less Europe, but more” and an overhaul of EU treaties to force fiscal union, Prime Minister Cameron called for the aviodance of “grand plans and utopian visions” and saw the future of the Union as having the “…flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc”. They meet soon; that should prove interesting.

For all that history is only so eloquent when considering Germany and Germany’s place in Europe. Berlin’s leadership must therefore be given the benefit of the doubt so long as there is any doubt left about how Germany intends to exercise strategic influence. Germany is no longer ruled by the Kaiser or Hitler and the wars are now but distant memories. Germany is a model European democracy and shows no signs of wavering from a path set for it by the victorious allies.

But the question remains; a German Europe or a European Germany? Berlin will need to work hard to convince ALL Europeans that it knows the politically-correct answer to that most seminal of strategic questions, whatever the temptations for domination afforded by the Eurozone crisis, whatever the democracy-destroying expediency of the moment.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.