In September 1994 Wolfgang Schäuble, CDU/CSU parliamentary group leader at the time, and co-conservative Karl Lamers floated the provocative idea of a Kerneuropa, or “core Europe”. The economic and strategic core of the continent – Germany, France and Benelux – should have adopted a separate currency of its own to keep the Community construct from slipping towards “a weaker formation, limited to a few economic aspects and comprising various subgroups”.

16 years down the road, Wolfgang Schäuble’s prophecy is a reality. Not the positive part, a Kerneuropa, but the negative part. The 27-member EU, 16 of whose members are joined in the eurozone, is a creature at once elephantine and ailing, non-existent on the global scene and so fragmented it shakes the very foundations of the euro. Wolfgang Schäuble, who has since risen to the post of finance minister, pointed out yesterday that his government could refuse to lend Greece any money. He was echoing recent warnings by chancellor Angela Merkel – “as a drastic measure, we should consider the possibility of excluding a defaulting country from the European monetary union” –, but also and above all, the increasingly widespread sentiment of the German public.

German mark was a symbol of wellbeing

Back when the currency was first launched, at least two out of three Germans already said they preferred the good old Deutschmark to the euro. That scepticism has never been put to rest. So Greece’s near-bankruptcy is stoking the embers of deep-seated phobias already stirred up by the recession: above all, the dread of having to foot the bill for the others. Germans don’t want to become Europe’s cash dispenser for troubled countries to draw on in case of need. It’s the Greeks today, maybe the Portuguese, the Spanish or us tomorrow – the ill-famed "PIGS", in other words, the “Club Med idlers" against whom the German and Dutch orthodoxy were already railing in the 1990s.

Single currency did not bolster European unity

Then, when Mitterrand warned Kohl that, in exchange for a French yes to “greater Germany”, the latter would have to hand over the Mark and the Bundesbank for transformation into a European currency and a European Central Bank, the Europeanist argument was used to disarm many a sceptic. The new Berlin-based republic’s establishment sought to show that the object of German reunification was a European Germany, not a German Europe. Though always with the understanding that the euro was to behave like the Mark, the ECB like the Bundesbank. Hence the apparent rigour of the Maastricht “criteria” and the choice of Frankfurt as the seat of the ECB.

Geopolitical and economic necessity then enlarged the eurozone well beyond the optimum confines that had been traced in 1994 by Schäuble and Lamers. However, the diffusion of the currency was in no wise accompanied by steps to bolster European political unity.

A new odyssey for Hellenism

The opposite has now occurred. The Greek crisis goes to show everyone looks after number one in Europe. As is all too plain to see, our political leaders answer to their own electorate and not to some non-existent European constituency. In this European cacophony, it’s no wonder the markets are counting on Athens to go to the wall. Statements by Schäuble and Merkel are often construed as catering for the need to assuage people’s fears in the run-up to the 9 May elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. That’s a reductive interpretation that doesn’t go to the heart of the matter: Germany’s fed up with making sacrifices on behalf of unreliable European partners.

When, speaking from the island of Kastellòrizo, Greek prime minister Papandreou talks about a “new Odyssey for Hellenism”, the core Europe idea crops up again in Berlin: a currency for the area under German economic influence. Though now not just France and Benelux, but also Austria and a handful of Central European and Baltic countries. But that’s all. We don’t know how realistic such a prospect would be, but we do know it would take its toll in blood, sweat and tears on all Europeans, on Italians and other “PIGS” first and foremost, but on Germans, too.