FOR so long the last man standing in Europe, Germany has suddenly become its Sleeping Beauty. Several Princes Charming are gathered around the bed, desperate to rouse the princess from her slumber. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, urges Germany to wake up for the sake of Europe. Brussels anxiously watches the princess’s repose. Even Alexis Tsipras, who as Greece’s prime minister is more used to taking instructions from Berlin than giving them, has been whispering into her ear.Europeans complain about the results of German leadership when they receive it, but do not much like its absence. In 2011 Radek Sikorski, then Polish foreign minister, declared himself less fearful of German power than German inaction. Today, as Germany clumsily grapples with the result of its inconclusive
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FOR so long the last man standing in Europe, Germany has suddenly become its Sleeping Beauty. Several Princes Charming are gathered around the bed, desperate to rouse the princess from her slumber. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, urges Germany to wake up for the sake of Europe. Brussels anxiously watches the princess’s repose. Even Alexis Tsipras, who as Greece’s prime minister is more used to taking instructions from Berlin than giving them, has been whispering into her ear.
Europeans complain about the results of German leadership when they receive it, but do not much like its absence. In 2011 Radek Sikorski, then Polish foreign minister, declared himself less fearful of German power than German inaction. Today, as Germany clumsily grapples with the result of its inconclusive election in September, much of Europe finds itself in a similar spot.
It is all so frustrating. When France elected an avowedly reformist president in May, Germany seemed to have found the partner it had long claimed to seek. Two days after Germany’s election Mr Macron, who barely blinks without first considering the reaction in Berlin, delivered an ambitious speech on European reform calibrated not to antagonise Angela Merkel’s government. Some Germans are wringing their hands that he still awaits an answer. “France is ready for a European revolution and it is Germany that is pulling the brakes,” Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SDP), told Der Spiegel, a weekly.
But Mrs Merkel cuts a diminished figure these days. Leading her Christian Democrats (CDU) to their worst election result since 1949 was the first wound. The second came when Christian Lindner, pugnacious leader of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), blew up her bid to form a “Jamaica” coalition with his party and the Greens. Soon afterwards the German agriculture minister went rogue in Brussels, voting against a European Union weedkiller ban without first checking with his colleagues in Berlin. Mrs Merkel is not to blame for all this, but it contributes to a sense that the chancellor is increasingly at the mercy of events.
Optimists, inside and outside Germany, say a government without the FDP could be a blessing in disguise, even if it will take a while to build. The puritanical Mr Lindner once wanted to abolish the euro’s bail-out fund and kick Greece out. (In opposition, along with the far-right Alternative for Germany, his party will give the moribund Bundestag a populist shock.) Now Mrs Merkel is trying to rebuild the “grand coalition” of the past four years with the SPD, and some hope Mr Schulz’s party could inject it with some pro-European vim. As a former president of the European Parliament, Mr Schulz is well suited to place the EU at the heart of his coalition talks with the CDU, and Mrs Merkel’s lack of alternatives hands him tremendous leverage. Lo, this week a list of SPD demands surfaced that proposed working with Mr Macron on issues like tax harmonisation and European investment.
Do not get too excited. The problem is not just that the SPD is intellectually bankrupt, politically rudderless and in desperate need of a period of renewal outside government. Nor that the chances of a new grand coalition, according to Berlin-watchers, float somewhere between 40% and 60%. (As The Economist went to press an SPD convention was preparing to vote on whether to open talks.) Nor even that the party’s base is more interested in domestic policy, like health care and taxation, than reinventing Europe. Germany’s reluctance to lead the EU runs deeper than these incidentals.
On the euro, the former sense that the stars were aligned for an overhaul of the currency’s architecture has shrivelled into a smaller hope that the half-built banking union may inch towards completion—and officials in Berlin, eyeing Italy’s debt-laden lenders, are not even sure about that. The Germans dismiss reform plans unveiled by the European Commission this week as a pointless Brussels power grab, and think that a summit of euro-zone heads of government on December 15th, the first for over two years, is a waste of time. These are not signs of a country in a rush to reform.
Germany’s conviction that the problems of the euro zone are merely those of ill-disciplined states, encouraged by a recklessly expansionary monetary policy, has only grown. The fearsome finance ministry remains hyper-alert to hints that German taxpayers’ money might be used to fund the misbehaviour of others, whether through fiscal transfers, financial risk-sharing or any other villainous scheme. It is a defensive strategy, and largely unplugged from debates in other countries. “There’s almost an intention not to look at the rest of Europe,” sighs Marcel Fratzscher at the German Institute for Economic Research.
Prospects for a grand bargain with Mr Macron on security are only slightly brighter. German officials say his speech offered nothing new. Mrs Merkel’s team think they have effected a huge change in Germany’s approach to the world; it now directs European foreign policy in trouble-spots like the Western Balkans and Ukraine. But outsiders, including in the United States, still lament Germany’s utter lack of strategic culture. A survey this week found that Germans want more EU defence, but want to pay no more for it. You might say they wish to have their cake and eat it.
Mrs Merkel’s officials bristle at suggestions that Germany has done nothing: look how far the chancellor has moved on bail-outs and risk-sharing in recent years. But as Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia’s president, says, “When the crisis abated, the enthusiasm was gone.” Maybe the status quo suits Germany too well. Europe’s economies are growing nicely and refugees are no longer pouring in. At home unemployment is rock-bottom and the treasury’s coffers are spilling over. It took a century for Sleeping Beauty to awaken. In the meantime most of her would-be suitors died in the thorns that surrounded her keep.