TL: Over the past few months, Angela Merkel has often been compared to Helmut Kohl. Timothy Garton Ash finds that Kohl had a sense of history and always made the right choices at the right time. Now – and he’s far from the only one – he criticises the present German chancellor for having no historical vision and for having proved incapable, at the critical moment of the Greek crisis, of accepting sacrifices for Europe’s sake.

JJ: From the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Europe of the German chancellors was completely different from present-day Europe. Their country, stuck on the edge of free Europe, was saddled with the legacy of World War II, and it was a potential battleground in the Cold War. The first priority of German politicians in that period was to regain their neighbours’ trust and respect, which the successive chancellors succeeded in doing perfectly. Kohl understood that he had to offer something in exchange for Germany’s rapid reunification and the reinforcement of German power. That’s why he was willing to finance the transition to the euro. That was the price to pay for German reunification.

Today the situation is totally different. In the space of 20 years, Germany managed to gain its neighbours’ trust as a democracy and as a reliable partner, which was something absolutely unthinkable in 1945. Angela Merkel herself is of course aware that, owing to its past, Germany is always closely watched. But what exactly do all these critics accuse her of?

TL: Garton Ash, for instance, blames her for switching off the German “engine” that used to push Europe forwards. She was unwilling to go against German public sentiment for Europe’s sake and help Greece out of its bankrupt situation.

JJ: But if you look at things a little more closely, you realise that actually Kohl didn’t sacrifice a thing to European unification. We imposed the Stability Pact on other European countries and strict fiscal discipline, a typically German discipline. The problem is the system didn’t work. Not all the countries in the European Union are committed to that discipline and many lied about their public accounts.

TL: To what extent does Germany need the European Union? Why should it take on financial sacrifices?

JJ: Germany needs the EU even more than the other big European countries do. A collapse of the EU would have catastrophic consequences for Germany, whose economy is nearly 50% dependent on exports. If the euro were to disappear, that would increase the value of the Germany currency and, in so doing, destroy our economic model, which depends on exports.

TL: But still, shouldn’t Angela Merkel have defied German public opinion and come to Greece’s rescue a lot earlier on?

JJ: I think the German chancellor acted responsibly. She wanted to bring some pressure to bear on the troubled states, to show them that Germany wouldn’t pay for everything. I think it worked. Spain, Portugal and Greece promised to adhere in future to tight budgetary discipline. I don’t understand the accusations of selfishness and nationalism levelled at Germany. Especially seeing as it’s German taxpayers who are financing the bulk of the rescue package. That’s really anything but anti-European behaviour....

TL: What lessons should Europe learn from the Greek crisis?

JJ: To my mind, the biggest lesson to be learned from this crisis is that Europe works. Sure, we spent some long weeks temporising, vacillating, trying to make up our minds, but in the end Europe came up with a total of €750 billion. After that, nobody can say the EU is incapable of taking action.

TL: What do you think will be the main threats to the EU next year?

JJ: They will be geopolitical. All those issues on which Europe can’t seem to put up a united front. Turkey is drifting away from Europe, it is bent on becoming a dominant power in the Middle East. Egypt is currently at a standstill and at risk of sinking into chaos. And then there are belligerent countries like Iran or Syria. The critical axis runs from Ankara to Kabul. And the EU doesn’t know what position to take. European politicians have an easier time agreeing on economic issues than on strategic issues.

TL: More and more commentators, particularly Niall Ferguson, a highly reputed economic historian, argue that the EU now faces a major dilemma: either it manages to really commit to a political unification process, or it will end up sooner or later disappearing.

JJ: I don’t thing we should see things in such cut-and-dried terms. It has become clear that we can’t really have a single currency, the euro, without tighter economic coordination, which in fact amounts to a step towards political unification. Those who came out against the introduction of the euro for that very reason – and I was among them – were saying that 15 years ago. But to reduce the situation to a do-or-die alternative: either we create a United States of Europe or the EU disappears, is specious reasoning.

TL: Then what is the political and economic reality of Europe?

JJ: We shouldn’t consider Europe in terms of that alternative. It’s not a kind of cathedral you build according to a set plan. It’s more like a coral reef that grows chaotically. That’s how Europe was born and that’s how it will go on evolving.

TL: How far do you believe EU centralisation will go?

JJ: For the time being, I think the only concrete manifestation will be greater respect for the Stability Pact, which will be tightened up. Nicolas Sarkozy’s desire to see a fully centralised European Union assert itself with a common economic policy cannot be satisfied because two cultures are at odds here: the German and the French culture. The former calls for more domestic reforms, more market and discipline, the latter for more centralisation, statism and expansion. Sarkozy’s dreams cannot come true.