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Germany goes to polls focused on cost not value of Europe

European disintegration is far more advanced than closer union ever was

Gen Charles de Gaulle: To survive, Europe needs a return to big politics in the style of the French militarist, and Helmut Kohl, Jacques Delors and François Mitterrand. Photograph: PA Wire

A century ago, in March 1915, the German philosopher Georg Simmel wrote in a Berlin newspaper: “It’s not enough that the idea of Europe doesn’t die, it should live.”

To live, today’s Europe needs big politics in the style of Konrad Adenauer, Gen Charles de Gaulle, Helmut Kohl, Jacques Delors and François Mitterrand. If Angela Merkel harbours any ambition of entering the pantheon of great European leaders, here is a plan for what needs to come – and fast – after Sunday’s federal election.

Step one: dig out and dust off the 2012 document by the EU’s four presidents – commission, council, European Central Bank and euro group – for an economic, budgetary, fiscal and political union. That paper was sucked up in the eurocrisis hurricane, as was ex-EU commissioner László Andor’s plan for a European unemployment insurance. Two other documents are worth keeping on her desk. First, French president Emmanuel Macron’s recent Acropolis address calling for a sovereign EU 2.0 that goes beyond the nation state. Second, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s state-of-the-union address, calling for of one common area for European democracy and currency.

It is up to Angela Merkel to deploy her political strength – and Germany’s – for a European policy U-turn in the tradition of big politics of the past

As a student of Helmut Kohl, Angela Merkel doesn’t need to be reminded of his 1989 mantra: German and European unity are two sides of the same coin. But as Berlin has superseded Brussels as Europe’s new capital, it is up to her to deploy her political strength – and Germany’s – for a European policy U-turn in the tradition of big politics of the past: Franco-German reconciliation under de Gaulle and Adenauer; the 1957 Treaty of Rome that created the single market; the currency union with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, under Kohl and Mitterrand.

Big politics

How would big politics look today? If Macron and a re-elected Merkel refounded European democracy – one market, one currency, one democracy. A Europe 2030 project, to be realised in 10 years, would reorganise the European parliament, giving all citizens an equal vote, and create a new European finance minister and a euro-zone budget.

But will Merkel do any of this? Or Martin Schulz if, by a miracle, he becomes chancellor? In truth, little is to be expected from Germany in the next years because this is not the age of big politics in Germany. And even if it were: anyone with eyes can see that, when it comes to completing currency union as a political union, that ship has sailed.

Only by repressing this fact has Germany, Europe’s biggest and most important country, run an election campaign in which Europe, if at all, was mentioned only in crude, nationalist terms.

European politics and European peace are increasingly viewed as too expensive in Germany. In this country, it is increasingly difficult to find passionate defenders of a real, social and democratic Europe.

We’ve come a long way. In 1994, Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) described a European budget and fiscal union as an absolute necessity. Today, although it is first among equals in the euro zone and with a trade deficit damaging its neighbours, Germany sees itself as a victim of the European status quo. Further integration plans, Merkel officials argue, would cost German taxpayers too much money and future Berlin governments too much power and are thus unworkable.

Sorry juncture

We have reached the sorry juncture in Germany’s European politics where ascendent conservatives and liberals – in Merkel’s CDU and Free Democrats – see the price of everything, the value of nothing. Running scared from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and its “Germany has to pay for everything” arguments, Berlin’s centre-right mainstream tries to tabulate the EU in a spreadsheet and then issues dire warnings against the great evil of a transfer and liability union.

Germany may look like an isle of stability in an uncertain world, but it is penned in by European extremists in one direction and sated Europeans in the other

As one kind of pressure increases on Merkel at home, another kind of pressure is building from the next generation of European leaders. Lead by Emmanuel Macron, they are anxious to get moving on the euro’s next chapter. And so the coming four years will be a delicate balancing act for the chancellor. Germany may look like an isle of stability in an uncertain world, but it is penned in by European extremists in one direction (Hungary and Poland) and sated Europeans (French, Dutch, Austrians) in the other.

The real tragedy of our era is that European disintegration – what Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev calls the European twilight – is now more advanced than ever-closer-union ever was. The question now is no longer what Europe will cost but what the final charge will be for not nailing down European integration in the last, crisis-filled decade. The looming question is whether France drifts off into a Club Med and Germany rolls back its western link and, true to its history, orients itself to the east with Russia and China.

These great, geo-strategic questions have always shaped thinking about Europe and are now more relevant than ever. As the old West disintegrates on the watch of Donald Trump, European cohesion is once again up for grabs. And, in the middle of it all, the old German question: it is too big for its neighbours yet not bigger than all of them combined.

The last six decades of European integration are, in historical terms, not even the blink of an eye. And Angela Merkel has the chance to go down in history as the leader who departed office leaving Germany all alone in Europe again. Unless, that is, she breaks the habit of a political lifetime and embraces big European politics.

Prof Ulrike Guérot is founder of the European Democracy Lab and professor of European politics at the Danube University Krems