In the memory of everyone reading this column Germany has a grotesque past and a guilt-ridden present. Since the Federal Republic’s founding in 1949, Germans of all generations have worked assiduously to purge the crimes of the Nazi era.
It was never quite enough. However much money and effort Germany put into trying to be a good European, it could not scrub away history—not least as far as Germans themselves were concerned. Germany might be the biggest and richest country on the continent, but it was chained by the past. German leadership was inherently about paying the bill, not taking decisions. For allies and neighbours, putting pressure on Germany was easy: murmuring “historical responsibility” was usually enough to open wallets and silence objections.
Not any more. Europe is now facing a new Germany, self-confident to the point of self-righteousness. It dominates Europe, and is happy to do so. It enforces rules because it believes them to be right—and in Europe’s best interest.
The biggest example of this is migration. Germans feel they have done the right thing by taking a million asylum-seekers this year, a bold humanitarian gesture made on principle, at a time when almost all other European countries flinched and quibbled. Having taken the lead, Germany is now firmly asking (some would say telling) the rest of Europe to help share the short-term costs of housing, feeding and integrating migrants in their societies too.
Recalcitrant countries can expect to pay a penalty—for example in losing access to European Union payments for infrastructure and regional development. Germany is also promoting what is in effect an EU army—a border guard for the Schengen zone which can be deployed over the heads of a failing national government (read: Greece).
It is a similar story with the euro zone. Germany has bailed out the indigent south Europeans. It praises progress in Ireland, Spain and Portugal. But it expects laggards (read: Greece) to become competitive, by introducing the budgetary discipline and efficient public administration which they lack.
Germany runs European foreign policy too: it dragged reluctant eastern and southern European governments into supporting sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In an even more startling diplomatic somersault, it is pushing for a rapprochement with Turkey—a country which it once shunned.
The personification of this is “Mutti” [mother] as Germans dub Angela Merkel. Her popularity at home is barely dented by worries about the costs and difficulties of integrating migrants. She effortlessly brushed off critics at her party conference this month, gaining a nine-minute standing ovation which would have lasted still longer had she not calmed the delegates down, telling them, “we still have work to do”. It is little wonder that Time magazine made her “Person of the Year” for 2015, dubbing her “Chancellor of the Free World”. Another title would have been “the Good German”—guilty no longer, but grittily determined to do the right thing.
All this is a huge problem for us Britons—not because it is a threat to our interests, but because we do not understand it. We are conditioned to see Germany as a potential menace: Winston ChurchilI told the American congress in 1943, “The Hun is always at your throat or at your feet”. We have twice fought world wars, at colossal cost, to prevent a German-dominated Europe. It is hardly surprising that our historical hackles rise when we see the phantom menace taking shape once more.
Yet modern Germany is something quite different. It is not burdened by Kaiser Wilhelm’s grievances about lack of colonies, far less is it licking the wounds of Versailles. It is not militaristic (indeed NATO’s beleaguered frontline states are furious about Germany’s obstinate quasi-pacifism towards Russia’s military threat). It is not revanchist (it has not the slightest desire to regain Alsace-Lorraine, Silesia or the Sudetenland). It wants a rules-based economic and political order in Europe, not the arbitrary exercise of national willpower. Mrs Merkel herself is the epitome of the cautious, conscientious modern German. Her main shortcoming (at least in the past) has been prevarication, not excessive bossiness.
It is easy to point at lapses in Germany’s high-horsemanship. The euro crisis has its roots in reckless lending by German savers, as well as profligacy and corruption elsewhere. The Volkswagen emissions scandal has highlighted a culture of ruthless greed and deceit in parts of German business. A planned new gas pipeline direct to Russia across the Baltic Sea will benefit German business but damage the interests of east European transit countries such as Ukraine. The migration policy irks others: Germany may be able to afford to absorb a million migrants; European countries such as Poland can’t, and forcing them to do so risks stoking a social explosion.
But the big point is that Germany wants to make the EU work. This is hard for Britons to grasp, at a time when we are obsessing about leaving it. We see the EU as shackles to stop us doing the right thing. Germany sees it as an enforcer, to make sure other countries behave kindly, thriftily and responsibly. We simply cannot grasp the unstinting money and effort Germany is willing to devote to this. Instead we fantasise about a fourth Reich, in sinister disguise.
As Germany’s new Europe takes shape, we are not part of it. We Britons could be making decisions on the bridge—where our size and diplomatic heft would naturally position us. Instead we are sitting sulkily and uncomprehendingly in a lifeboat, arguing about whether we want to be lowered overboard.