After Brexit, continental Europe will have to deal with the German problem again. The main problem of Europe is not the fiscal profligacy of the Mediterranean states or the reluctance of Central Europeans to accept the progressive uniformity of Brussels, but Germany’s rising dominance.
Located at the center of the Eurasian peninsula, throughout its history Germany was either too feeble to oppose other powers sweeping through the continent or too powerful to be contained by its neighbors. As the historian AJP Taylor described it at the end of World War II:
The history of Germany is a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation, and in the course of a thousand years the Germans have experienced everything except normality. . . .Geographically the people of the centre, the Germans have never found a middle way of life, either in their thought or least of all in their politics.
The problem of Germany and of its “extremes” could never be solved within the country, and required a careful balancing by the other powers of Europe. The solution found after World War II was to rivet Germany into a Europe-wide architecture, first limited to Western Europe and then, after the annus mirabilis 1989, extended to Central Europe.
The cornerstone of this architecture was a grand Franco-German friendship, meant originally to stiffen up the fragile Western European area facing the aggressive Soviet tyrants. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer wrote in 1962 that these two states, locked in friendship, would “form a political dam. . . .[against the] atheistic forces of Communism, [which] while pretending to create a paradise on earth, are set on robbing people of their dignity and freedom and degrading them into will-less elements of a termite-state.” (Incidentally, how rare it is now to have a Western politician speak about the danger of “atheistic forces”!)
The expectation, or perhaps only a hope, was that, through the years, the project of European integration would both contain a growing Germany and strengthen it to withstand the pressures from, or the lures of, Russia. The European Union, that is, was meant to be a mechanism of balancing as well as propping up Germany. The goal was a stable and strong but not hegemonic and aggressive (nor weak and fragile) Germany at the heart of Europe. And in the last decades of the 20th century Germany was indeed a key engine of European integration rather than a destabilizing force. It was part of the solution rather than a problem.
But this geopolitical blessing may be coming to an end. Germany is becoming untethered from Europe.
First, Germany is no longer an engine of integration but a source of fear and resentment. For instance, in 2008 the fiscal demands imposed on the Southern European states (Greece in particular) as a result of the euro crisis were seen less as rightful obligations of responsible members of “Europe” and more as diktats of an economically dominant Germany. Similarly, the unfortunate statement of Chancellor Merkel welcoming migrants to Europe without any apparent limit was not the result of a coordinated European policy but, again, the willful decision of a German leader that Berlin expected would be accepted by all.
Second, Germany may pay lip service to being “for Europe,” but it is pursuing a foreign policy that is undermining the security of most of the continent. By building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, it leaves Central European states open to Moscow’s energy blackmail while increasing Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. EU members are clearly the big losers, while Germany pursues short-term business profits.
Germany is militarily supine but with hegemonic tendencies. It is too weak to lead Europe by supplying security to it, and thus it seeks to appease European enemies such as Russia and China by letting them extend increasingly greater influence over the continent. Germany is a dangerous pacifist.
At the same time, Germany is the most powerful economy in Europe, and one that has benefited the most from the euro. The European Union, and the euro, are the tools of its continued expansion, rather than mechanisms to mitigate the negative effects of its size. The result is that Germany dictates the terms to Europe.
Brexit will only exacerbate the German problem because it removes the second largest economy and the top military from the European Union, leaving Germany even more unchecked. The UK was a crucial ballast within the EU and the continental European states will now face the German problem alone—unless they strengthen their anchor with the United States. So far, however, France is preoccupied with its own domestic woes, Italy seems to be chasing after Chinese investments in infrastructure, and EU leaders are myopically savoring the difficult decisions facing the UK. But European statesmen should remember, and quickly, that the course of German history rarely leads to Europe’s stability.