Every four years, the silly season comes to Europe. As 16 countries vie for the European soccer championship, fans revel in the kind of nationalistic fervor that the European project set out to tame. “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death,” said the Scottish player Bill Shankly, who died in 1981. “I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
National tensions born on the soccer field have even weighed on my own family, since I am a German married to an Italian. And yet, in that weird way that sports parallels life, in recent years my wife has been won over to Germany’s allure; it hosted the World Cup in 2006 and its team came in third that year and again at the 2010 cup with a youthful and brash style that made Germany new friends in Europe and around the world, my wife included.
Germany is a favorite to win the 2012 championship now under way in Poland and Ukraine, having chalked up decisive wins in its first two games this week. Domestic bliss should reign in my home. So why does the foreign-policy guy in me keep hoping Germany will lose?
The painful fact is that a German victory over the rest of Europe would strengthen a notion that many Europeans harbor already: that the Continent is ruled by a new regional superpower.
At its inception, the euro was a condition the French posed to agree to German reunification. Paris believed at the time that a common currency would hold Germany down and prevent it from realizing the full potential of its newfound power. Instead, the euro now looks more like the key instrument for establishing Berlin’s dominance over central Europe.
Today Germany, which has the largest population in Europe and by far the strongest economy, is the banker of last resort for countries in need. It enjoys a record low unemployment rate, one that makes it seem strangely detached from the plight of its struggling neighbors.
Even in the best of times, a pushback would be inevitable. Now, with Germany setting the terms for resolving the euro crisis, it’s here with a fury. Greek newspapers regularly indulge in not-so-subtle digs at the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, as a Nazi. Some British columnists write that Berlin has erected a “Fourth Reich” over the Continent — this time not on the strength of its army, but with the help of the common European currency.
As my wife can attest, not every non-German hates the country. A recent Pew Global Attitudes poll showed that a majority of Europeans still hold a favorable opinion of Germany.
The real problem is among the political and media elite in Brussels and other European capitals, where an anti-German discourse is taking root, and in places like Greece, where Pew found that 78 percent of respondents have an unfavorable opinion of Germany and 84 percent think that Ms. Merkel is doing a bad job. If Germany becomes too overpowering, it is only a matter of time before such attitudes toward Germany spread throughout Europe.
As much as the European Union likes to believe it has banished power politics, the fact remains: If one country becomes too powerful the others will team up against it.
The same thing happened to the United States after the cold war, which was supposed to mark the end of history — and therefore the end of international politics as we knew it. And yet, the neorealist Kenneth N. Waltz wrote in 2000, “As nature abhors a vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power.” He predicted that other powers would naturally team up as a counterbalance in the international order — and, predictably, during the Iraq war Russia, France and Germany built an axis against Washington.
What held true for America on a global scale holds true for Germany on the European level. We saw how American triumphalism under President George W. Bush planted the seeds for a subsequent decline in America’s global standing. Germans shouldn’t repeat that same mistake on the Continent.
It is of course unfair to put the burden of international power politics on the shoulders of soccer players, who only want to do what they know best: score goals and win their matches. But the European championship is as good a moment as any for Germany to recognize that our image in the world has completely changed in recent years. In the decades after World War II, we kept a low profile, pretending to appear less important than we were. Now we have entered a period in which others think we are more powerful and resourceful than we actually are.
After the fall of Communism and the reunification of the two Germanys, the country had to learn to act like a real sovereign state again. Now we need to learn the next lesson: to use German power wisely, and with a good portion of humility.
If the German team is lucky enough to reach the championship final and wins it all, I will gladly join just about everyone else in Germany in celebration. But should our boys lose, I will console myself with the fact that they’ve done a great service to the foreign policy of their country.
Clemens Wergin is the foreign editor for the German newspapers Welt and Welt am Sonntag.