Why Germany is now happy to punch its weight
- 3 October 2010
- From the section Europe
Twenty years after the reunification of West Germany and the communist East Germany, the anxieties expressed then about a new German domination of Europe have proved unfounded. Even so, Germany is no longer afraid to assert its own national interests.
At a stroke on 3 October 1990, German reunification transformed Europe's geopolitical landscape, less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For many people, there seemed to be much to celebrate. Communism in Europe was dead. Eastern Europe was free from the Soviet yoke. The Cold War was declared over.
But there was also apprehension in some places that the nation which had unleashed the Nazi tyranny on most of Europe in World War II was once again united, with by far the largest population in Europe.
The old order, dominated by the victor nations from the war, was crumbling. Britain's then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, voiced the fear that an "over-mighty" Germany would again destabilise Europe.
But over time Germany allayed such anxieties. The assurance repeated often by Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of German unity, was that German reunification and European integration should advance together as two sides of the same coin.
That persuasive formula became the new orthodoxy for Europe as a whole. So from the start Germany was at the very heart of the European "project" of ever-deeper integration, involving the countries of Western and Eastern Europe alike.
Today Joerg Himmelreich, a senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, says Germans can be justly proud that they were "fervent supporters of the enlargement of the EU to include former east bloc countries like Poland".
Germany earned a reputation for reliability as it became the main paymaster of the newly born EU.
The Germans sacrificed their strong currency, the deutschemark, for a common European currency, the euro. And Mr Kohl told Germans to rejoice because their nation had ended the 20th Century as "winners of history".
Today, however, a new word - assertive - is often used to describe Germany's behaviour. Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, says in recent times Germany has often shocked its partners by forcefully pressing its demands, leading to all kinds of "recalculations" within both the EU and Nato.
In 2008 Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel led the charge on behalf of Germany's luxury carmakers and other heavy industries for exemptions from the EU's carbon trading scheme. Critics said the demands seriously watered down the EU's policy on climate change.
And when Greece and other chronically indebted eurozone members needed urgent help to rescue them from sovereign default or a forced exit from the euro system, Germany dragged its feet, provoking widespread criticism from abroad.
The international financier, George Soros, said Germany's rigid stance endangered the EU itself. He likened Germany to the mythological figure Procrustes, who forced other people to lie in his bed and cut off their legs to make them fit.
But most Germans blamed the countries with weak economies for their own misfortune, and were unwilling to part with more of their money to bail them out - especially since the huge costs of rebuilding the East meant that Germans themselves were no longer among the wealthiest Europeans.
That brittle public sentiment was summed up by the tabloid newspaper Bild, which cheekily suggested that the Greeks should hand over the island of Corfu and the Acropolis in return for German cash.
In the end, Germany was again persuaded to show its European solidarity by agreeing to play the major part in a bail-out package for Greece and standby facility for other eurozone members in trouble.
But in sensitive foreign policy and military matters, united Germany's willingness to assert its own perceived national interests has more than once had an unsettling effect on its long-standing Western allies.
In 2003 German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder boldly declared his country's "emancipation" from American tutelage.
He allied Germany very publicly with Russia and France in opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq in what was dubbed a "Berlin-Moscow-Paris axis".
Mr Schroeder's stance was popular at home but Joerg Himmelreich in Berlin says the damage to Germany's relations with its long-time protector, the US, has been lasting.
Dr Himmelreich says Angela Merkel is determined to repair what he calls "the destruction of transatlantic relations under Schroeder".
Germany's very close ties with Russia - political as well as in major energy and business deals - also cause unease in the states of Central and Eastern Europe. They are apprehensive about Russia's encroachments in the region especially after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
Poland's Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, complained this year that some EU member states were holding others "hostage" by forging unilateral ties with Russia. His remarks were clearly aimed at Germany, among others.
Now the German government has put another hot issue on the table by calling for the removal of all US nuclear weapons from German soil.
Lord Robertson, a former Nato secretary general, has called Germany "irresponsible" for wanting to remain under America's nuclear umbrella while exporting the obligation of maintaining it to other European states.
Hosting the World Cup in 2006, Germans found themselves uniting behind their national flag as they had not been comfortable doing in previous decades. Yet the outside world saw that exuberance as a sign of healthy German self-confidence. The event was a huge success.
But thanks to Germany's size and history, when it pursues its own interests like any other normal nation, it can still send waves around the world.
William Horsley is Media Freedom Representative of the Association of European Journalists.