We are the champions, but we Germans need Europe as much as Europe needs us

Opinion: Just as Munich and Dortmund will need help from foreign players this weekend, so it is with the German economy

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund players celebrate on the last occasions they won the Uefa Champions League in 2001 and 1997 respectively. Photographs: Reuters

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund players celebrate on the last occasions they won the Uefa Champions League in 2001 and 1997 respectively. Photographs: Reuters

Fri, May 24, 2013, 02:00

With an eye on Wembley, Germany’s biggest newspaper crowed in English “We are the Champions!”. Europe’s strongest economy, booming exports, record employment levels, balanced budgets, investors accepting negative interest rates for German bonds – and to top it all, two Bundesliga clubs will battle it out for the European football crown at Wembley.

So yes, we are the champions! Really? Big headlines can be misleading if you neglect the fine print. Start with football. Wembley will see a historic first: never before has there been an all-German final in the Champions League. Bayern München was the last German team to win the title in 2001, Borussia Dortmund triumphed in 1997.

As they are this year’s finalists, the next champions will be German. A German club, but not a German team. Instead, a multinational ensemble based in Germany but not exclusively from Germany. Dortmund’s first eleven in the semi-final against Real Madrid included one Serb and three Polish players, Bayern started with six non-Germans in Barcelona.

The next champions will be a German club – with a “little” help from our (foreign) friends. And so it is with Germany and the German economy.

These days, Germany enjoys Triple A status in the economic arena as well as on the football pitch. There may be a link. In May 2011, a few days ahead of the Champions League final won by Barcelona against Manchester United, the Financial Times likened Barcelona’s football to German engineering: they both hire and nurture talents. Both Dortmund and Munich have successfully pursued this policy, and “Made in Germany” stands for innovation and durability founded on German craftsmanship.

The analogy goes even further. Competition is the essence of football and competitiveness the winning formula. The same is true for market economies: competition drives progress and competitiveness determines who succeeds.

But this is not the whole story. Competition needs competitors. To win the Champions League there have to be teams to beat. And not just any teams but strong rivals that make for a close match. Otherwise, there would be no drama and we fans would lose interest in football.

In the economic sphere, it is similar. Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly half-jokingly expressed disappointment with the view that football is a matter of life and death, because he thought it was more important than that. We football devotees feel the same when a game involving our club teeters on a knife-edge. But we also know that we can afford such feelings because football is what it is – just a game.

Economics is not. There have been times in European history when wars were the continuation of economic rivalries with other means. They were driven by a zero-sum illogic: in peacetime, it was “if you lose, I win”, in wartime it was “only if you lose will I survive”.

Happily, these times are over, not only, but not least because of European integration. The EU is based on and thrives on the logic of the common good: peace, prosperity and democracy go hand in hand and we either enjoy them together or lose them together.

This logic is ineluctable, even for a country as big as Germany. True, in the economic champions league we have been the titleholders for some years now, and with economic efficiency comes political power that puts us in a pivotal position in Europe – whether we or others like it or not.

Arguably, never before has post-war Germany been so crucial for and so influential in a European Union engulfed by an unprecedented economic and financial crisis. Such a situation is bound to entail frustration: on the part of those outside Germany who accuse us of doing too little to stimulate recovery, and on the part of those in Germany who fear that we are taking on too much of other peoples’ debt.

Germany’s singular position has led to assertions that the “German question” is back: a Germany too strong for a Europe of nation states. That is a myth.

To dispel it, Germans can point to facts and interests. A sober look at our resources (size of population and economy, technological prowess and military capabilities) makes clear that Germany is not and never will be a superpower: while we are stronger we do not tower above others as the United States does in relation to Germany. We play in the European champions league, we do not qualify for the global champions league.

But Europe does. That is why even “big” Germany has a fundamental interest in a strong Europe. Collective European sovereignty enables us to deal with other global players on an equal footing and thus promote our interests and values.

Europe is strong when its member states are strong. In today’s world, this strength mainly comes from economic and technological clout as well as political and cultural appeal. On both accounts, Germany needs Europe as much as Europe needs us.

Our prosperity depends on a prosperous Europe because the single market is and will remain our most important trading place. As the country with the most neighbours in Europe, our stability is best ensured by belonging to a community of democratic nation states. A Europe united in diversity and governed by the rule of law demonstrates that against all historical odds, lasting peace is possible and such a Europe can act as a force for good in the world.

So from a German point of view, we are incapable of dominating Europe and any such attempt would be self-defeating. But only ideologues or self-righteous hegemons would ignore that how they see themselves may radically differ from how others see them.

Germany can and should be criticised. We have no monopoly on wisdom. But neither have others. What Germany does have today is the “power of the purse”. Germany’s is the only big economy left with Triple A rating, and we are the main anchor of the euro zone. To date, German taxpayers have taken on liabilities of nearly €300 billion. With the implicit backing provided by the German economy, the European Central Bank has taken measures of a kind and on a scale unforeseen when it was established.

So what is to be done if, as our critics believe, Germany wields too much influence and uses it in a detrimental way?

Well, what would a football club have to do in order to catch up with a competitor? Assuming that it could not rely on some mega-financier bailing it out, the club would have to adopt the harder and longer-term, but ultimately more sustainable, strategy of tackling weaknesses, nurturing home-grown talents and relying on innovation. It wouldn’t work the other way around: expecting your competitor to become weaker to save you the hardship of reform.

On the economic pitch, it is no different. Allegedly “over-competitive” Germany is being asked to ease up so that others can catch up and imbalances in the euro zone dissipate.

Think again. A less competitive Germany would help nobody but hurt everybody. An underperforming Germany would be weaker and thus less capable of extending solidarity. Such a Germany would also import less which would be especially harmful to those of our neighbours who are suppliers to German companies. (German car exports, for example, have an import content of 25 per cent).

Lastly and most importantly: In contrast to the Uefa Champions League, the benchmark of economic competitiveness is global. Europe’s prosperity depends on our ability to measure up to the likes of the US, Japan, China and India as well as to ensure a level playing field on global markets.

So yes, “we are the champions”. This year’s football crown will go to a German club. But the economic crown belongs to Europe and the euro. For some years now, our Euro team has been struggling, with Germany being asked to be both manager and captain. That situation cannot and should not last. Our team can and will be stronger only when we improve both our individual and our collective performance.

Dr Eckhard Lübkemeier is Germany’s ambassador to Ireland

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