Imagine a building in Berlin tall enough to provide a look across the entire continent — and beyond. What do you see?
To the east, you spot a former superpower that strives to regain its old glory as it degenerates into dictatorship. To the west, across the Atlantic, you observe an actual superpower in retreat, tired of providing security for Europe’s periphery, especially to a Middle East that is losing its state structures.
And what do you see below your feet? A continent that could be a superpower, but that is so busy holding body and soul together that you can actually feel the ground shake, far below you.
Europeans are dizzy, no doubt. That’s not a bad thing, in principle. Dizziness can be the best way to find a new, firmer stand. The problem for Europe is that it takes an enormously strong will and political talent to balance a body with 28 brains.
The German government has mobilized the loans to stabilize Europe economically after the debt crisis. But now it faces an even bigger challenge: to give the Continent a badly needed dose of confidence, a restoration of Europe’s belief in itself. Two big questions need new, clear answers: What does Europe stand for? And what does it stand up for?
The old narrative, whereby European integration brings peace and wealth, is history. A narrative of the opposite kind grows stronger. Considerable parts of the third generation of European Union politicians and citizens are openly hostile to the kind of supranationalism established in Brussels.
There’s Marine Le Pen, head of France’s right-wing National Front party, who has a chance of becoming the country’s next president in 2017. At the same time, the anti-European Union United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, has forced Prime Minister David Cameron and the euroskeptics in his Conservative party to take the offensive and call a referendum on Britain’s membership in the union by the end of 2017.
Whereas a “Grexit,” a Greek exit from the eurozone, might be painful, a Brexit, a loss of Britain from the union itself, would be a disaster. The European Union would not simply lose one — already insular — of its 28 members. It would lose one of the largest and most powerful.
And, once disintegration starts, centrifugal dynamics could easily get out of hand. The Poles have just elected as their new president the 43-year-old Andrzej Duda, a homegrown neoconservative who not only opposes joining the eurozone but who, in his euroskeptic tone, sounds like a Continental David Cameron. He owes his sudden success to the young voters — 62 percent of those between 19 and 29 years old voted for him, an ominous sign for the European Union’s standing in Eastern Europe.
The opposition of the young against the Europe of old — and the older generations — is a grossly underestimated danger to the legitimacy of the entire European Union. In Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, where youth unemployment has risen to nearly 45 percent, “the E.U. has come to represent little more than managed decline,” as The Economist rightly noted.
What has been the dream of European supranationalism for some has turned into the nightmare of foreign economic diktat for others. What was promised as unparalleled prosperity from free trade and globalization has, for millions of young Europeans, transformed into the reality of austerity and the realization that they will probably never enjoy the living standards of their parents.
This, in particular, is a dangerous disappointment; it nourishes a nostalgia for yesterday’s world — for less globalization and for alternatives to what is regarded as a “neoliberal” economy. One can easily imagine how much pleasure Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, takes in looking down on a Europe that is increasingly bewildered over the question of what is actually worth defending.
Government officials in Berlin know that it is up to them, not Brussels, to provide an answer. Not only did Germany emerge from the euro crisis as the leading European economy by far; it also enjoys increasing soft power, both in Europe and in the world. And Germany knows it has to act. The head of policy planning in the Foreign Ministry, Thomas Bagger, recently established the guiding formula for Berlin’s approach to its newfound position: to immediately clarify that this German moment needed to be transformed into a European moment. But how?
The truth is that at the height of its power, Germany is politically overstretched. The euro crisis, the Ukraine crisis, the crisis of confidence — it’s just too many crises for a single nation. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, reportedly sacrifices his weekends for tasks like bilateral negotiations that, in a calmer time, were routine work for his predecessors.
Talking to high-ranking diplomats in Berlin, you hear few new, compelling ideas about how to handle the stress. Instead: a series of sighs and hand-wringing. To make things worse, both Mr. Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel are not the kind of characters to speak to people’s hearts. In mentality and method, they are head politicians: critical analysts and incrementalists who always look and rarely leap.
In other words, Europe can’t look to Germany for long-term leadership, at least not now. Germany can only provide interim stability; it cannot resolve the dizzying chaos itself.
And this is nothing new for the Continent. Europe has always needed several engines. France must return to its former position as a co-leader of the European Union, and Britain and Poland must stay within it.
The real danger of the German moment for the rest of Europe is this: Both European Union governments, and their voters, are getting used to feeling helpless and looking to Berlin for answers, and for help. But, believe it or not, Berlin needs help, too.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.