In a recent newspaper essay with the imploring title “We Germans don’t want a German Europe”, published simultaneously in Great Britain, France, Poland, Italy and Spain, Wolfgang Schäuble denies Germany is striving for political leadership in the European Union in 2013. Schäuble, who with Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen is the last of the West-German style “Europeans” left in Merkel’s cabinet, speaks out of conviction. He is anything but a revisionist who would undo Germany’s integration in Europe and destroy the basis for the stability of the postwar order. He knows the problem whose return is something that we Germans must fear.

After the establishment of the Empire in 1871, Germany took a disastrous, semi-hegemonic position in Europe. In the familiar words of [German historian] Ludwig Dehio, “too weak to dominate the continent, but too strong to be reined in within it”. This [halfway stride across the continent] also opened the way to the disasters of the 20th century. Thanks to the success of European unification, neither the divided nor the united Germany could stumble back into the old dilemma. It is obviously in the interest of the Federal Republic that nothing should change. But is the situation today not different?

Imposing the agenda

Wolfgang Schäuble is responding to a current threat: he himself, indeed, is that threat, as the man who is forcing through Angela Merkel’s stubborn course in Brussels and noticing the cracks that could split apart the core of Europe. He is the one, meeting with eurozone finance ministers, who runs up against the resistance of the “recipient” countries when he once again blocks attempts at policy change. Standing in the way of a banking union that would spread the cost of winding down the ailing banks across the European Union is only the most recent example.

Schäuble does not budge one millimetre from the chancellor’s line that German taxpayers should not be burdened with a penny more than their fair amount of loan commitments that the financial markets demand to save the euro and have always gotten as a consequence of a blatantly investor-friendly “rescue policy”.

This course, tirelessly pursued, does not exclude of course a gesture of €100m for loans for small- and medium-sized business, which the rich uncle from Berlin recently paid out from the national treasury to their limping cousins in Athens.

The fact is that the Merkel government has imposed its controversial crisis agenda on France and the “southerners”, while the purchasing policy of the European Central Bank gives its unacknowledged backing. At the same time, however, Germany denies Europe-wide responsibility for the disastrous consequences of its policy, a responsibility it assumes, frankly, in taking on the (some would say entirely normal) role as a leading power. We only need to think of the horrendous youth unemployment in the south of Europe as one of the consequences of austerity that hurts the weakest members of those societies.

Merkel can freely pursue Germany’s national interests, or at least what she considers them to be.

In this light, the message “We don’t want a German Europe” takes on the less attractive meaning: that the Federal Republic is shirking its responsibilities. Technically, the European Council does act unanimously. As the head of just one of the 28 members, Merkel can freely pursue Germany’s national interests, or at least what she considers them to be. The German government reaps the benefits, however disproportionate they are, of the country’s economic dominance so long as no doubts stir among its partners about the Germans’ politically unambitious fidelity towards Europe.

But how does a gesture of humility, despite appearances, give an appearance of credibility to a policy that unabashedly plays off its own economic and demographic power? When, for example, tighter emission rules for the ostentatious luxury sedans of the nouveau riche might prove a burden on the German auto industry, despite being entirely in step with the turn away from nuclear to green power, the vote in Brussels becomes postponed, with an intervention of the chancellor, until the automobile lobby is satisfied, or until the parliamentary election is behind us. Schäuble’s article is a response, so it seems to me, to the irritations among the heads of other eurozone countries brought on by the double game the federal government is playing.

Citing market imperatives that supposedly leave us with no alternatives, an increasingly isolated German government is forcing rigorous austerity on France and the countries in crisis. Despite the facts, it proceeds from the assumption that all the member states of the European Monetary Union can decide their respective budgetary and economic policy autonomously. If necessary, with the help of loans from the rescue fund, they should set about “modernising” their government and economy and boost their competitiveness, but on their own.

A patronising deception

This fiction of sovereignty suits Germany, because it spares the stronger partner from having to consider the negative effects its own policies may have on the weaker partners. It contradicts [European Central Bank president] Mario Draghi’s warning last year that “it is neither legitimate nor economically sustainable if the economic policies of individual countries entail cross-border risks for the partners in the monetary union”.

It bears repeating: the less-than-ideal conditions in which the European Monetary Union operates today are due to the design flaws of an unfinished political union. The key, therefore, does not lie in shunting the problems onto the shoulders of crisis-hit countries through credit financing. The sovereign imposition of austerity policies are unable to resolve the economic imbalances existing in the eurozone. A levelling of these differences could be expected to come about over the medium term, only in a joint or closely coordinated fiscal, economic, and social policy. And if we do wish to smuggle in a technocracy through these means, the peoples of Europe must be asked what they think of a democratic core Europe. Schäuble knows that and even says it interviews with [German weekly magazine] Spiegel, which have, however, no implications for his own political actions.

European policy is in a trap that [German sociologist] Claus Offe has sharply illuminated: if we do not wish to abandon the monetary union, then an institutional reform, which will take time, is both necessary and unpopular. That is why politicians who want to be re-elected keep putting off the day of reckoning. The German government in particular is caught in a quandary, because through its own actions, it took on, long ago, a pan-European responsibility. It is also the only government that can move a promising initiative one step forward, and for that it must bring France onside. This is not a trivial undertaking, but a project to which the most prominent statesmen of Europe have dedicated their best efforts for more than half a century.

Underestimating voters and asking too little of them is always a mistake.

What exactly does “unpopular” mean, on the other hand? If a political solution is reasonable, an audience of democratic voters should be expected to agree with it. And when, if not before a federal election? Everything else is a patronising deception. Underestimating voters and asking too little of them is always a mistake. I think it a historical failure of the political elites in Germany that they continue to close their eyes and pretend it’s just business as usual, wrangling short-sightedly over fine print behind closed doors.

Instead, they should instead come clean with their restless citizens, who have never been confronted with weighty European issues as voters. They must go on the offensive and launch an unavoidably divisive quarrel over alternatives, none of which will come without a cost. They may no longer keep quiet about the negative effects of redistribution that the donor countries must accept over the short and medium term, in their own long-term interests, to arrive at the only constructive solution to the crisis.

We know Merkel’s answer amounts to more muddling, spreading soothing atmosphere of tranquility. Her public persona appears to be missing any core built around standards. Since the eruption of the Greek crisis in May 2010 and the defeat [of her Christian Democratic Union party] in the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, she has subordinated every deliberate step to the opportunism of holding onto power. The clever chancellor has manoeuvred since then with a clear mind, but with no discernible principles and has, for the second time, put off every controversial topic, not to mention keeping quiet about the carefully walled-off policy on Europe, until after the federal elections. She can set the agenda, because the opposition, if it were to press her on the highly emotive theme of Europe, would have to fear being laid low by the cudgel of the “debt union” – and indeed, by the very people who would say the same thing, if they would say anything about it at all. Europe is in a state of emergency, and those who can decide on what topics will be approved for public discussion have the political power.

Germany is not dancing on the volcano; it is asleep on it. Are the elites failing? Every democratic country gets the politicians it deserves. To expect the elected politicians to act out of character has something eccentric about it. I'm happy to live in a country that since 1945 has needed no heroes. I also do not believe that people make history, certainly not generally. I note only that there are exceptional situations in which perception and imagination, courage and the willingness to accept responsibility, among those in charge of moving forward, do make a difference.