Europe’s odd couple

She says more Europe. He says less Europe. Let’s call the whole thing off? At the beginning of this week, the German and British leaders gave their responses to what is clearly an existential crisis of the post-1945 European project. On Friday, they meet in Berlin to see if they can bridge the gap. If they succeed, it will be a miracle on the Spree.

Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, David Cameron evoked a Europe “with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc.”

“We skeptics” he averred, “have a vital point. We should look skeptically at grand plans and utopian visions.” This crisis offers an opportunity “in Britain’s case, for powers to ebb back instead of flow away … and for the European Union to focus on what really matters.” In short: less Europe.

“The task of our generation,” Angela Merkel told her party conference in Leipzig, “is to complete the economic and monetary union in Europe and step by step, create a political union.” If Europe is not doing well, Germany cannot do well, and Europe finds itself in “perhaps its most difficult hour since World War II.” The answer must be “not less Europe but … more Europe.” Germany should lead the way toward this “European domestic policy” with measures that include automatic sanctions on Eurozone members that cannot or will not keep their fiscal houses in order. Oh yes, plus a financial transactions tax, “at least in the euro area.”

It needs to be said clearly that Germany did not seek this leadership role. What most of today’s Germans want is to be left alone to get rich and live life in their own way: in short, to be a Greater Switzerland.

So here’s the irony. It is the European monetary union, which was intended (especially by France) to bind united Germany into Europe, that now almost compels Germany to stomp around telling other European countries what to do. For the Germans reasonably enough say: If we’re going to bail you out (Greece, Portugal, Italy, maybe soon France) by digging into our hard-earned surpluses, then we have the right to set conditions for our help. Otherwise you’ll drag us down into a swamp of debt, deficits and inflation.

I have in the past heard Merkel characterize the German dilemma in relation to Europe like this: If we don’t lead, they charge us with lack of European commitment; if we do, they accuse us of throwing our weight around. For two years, she’s been confronted with the first charge; now she faces the second.

So I welcome the fact that she has now spelled out a German vision of where Europe should go. Unfortunately, there are two problems with it: one of style, one of substance. The problem of style arises not with Merkel herself but with other members of her party. Some of us have had a taste of this in private conversations. Now, in a speech delivered by the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary leader, Volker Kauder, at that party conference, we hear it in public. Unsurprisingly, this made the front page of British papers. The mass-circulation Daily Mail ran the banner headline “Europe Speaks German Now!” — plus the obligatory reference to Joseph Goebbels on an inside page.

It must in fairness be noted that this is obviously a “rallying the party faithful” number, always a bombastic genre. That said, his tone is insufferable. Having delivered the line that he will surely live to regret — “now all at once German is spoken in Europe, not in the language but in the acceptance of the instruments for which Angela Merkel has fought so hard” — Kauder goes on, with extraordinary self-righteousness and arrogance, to lecture and hector not just the Brits but also the French, the Greeks (should never have been allowed into the Eurozone!) and the Turks.

This tone would be bad enough if the German policy prescription for saving the Eurozone were 100% right. But it isn’t. It’s only about 70% right — which, in a world of panicking markets, can suddenly become 100% wrong. At a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Warsaw last week, speakers from all corners of the continent got up to explain what virtually every economist outside Germany has been saying: If it is to save the Eurozone, Berlin must show more flexibility in allowing the European Central Bank to support struggling governments and at least the temporary use of joint-and-severally guaranteed Eurobonds, as suggested by Germany’s own council of economic advisors. If it doesn’t, there may be no Eurozone left to save.

Still and all, at least there is an articulated version of a “German Europe,” so we can point out its flaws. What is Cameron’s vision for a “British Europe”? At the moment, purest waffle. He denounces “utopian visions” but says nothing about how his own utopian vision of a “networked Europe” would work in practice. How exactly would a “networked Europe” preserve the benefits Britain does want to keep, especially those of the single market? How would a “networked Europe” relate to a more integrated Eurozone? Who would speak for a “networked Europe” in negotiations with China?

If Cameron does not spell out his ideas for Europe, everyone else in Europe will conclude that he only really has a policy for Britain. Or something narrower still: just a tactic to avoid his tripartite coalition (Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Euroskeptics) tearing itself apart over “Europe.”

So here’s a modest proposal to liven up the European Council meeting in December. Over dinner, let Merkel present her vision of German Europe. Let Cameron present his British Europe. Their fellow leaders should proceed to vote, in a secret ballot, on which they would rather be part of. Then, of course, the result has to be leaked. Even in these uncertain times, that we can still rely on.

By Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University. His latest book is Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name.

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