opinion
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No one to go out with

Germany is the country we cannot do without if we are to climb out of the crisis

Germany is the country we cannot do without if we are to climb out of the crisis. The prescription imposed by Berlin is still devastating the EU periphery without stabilizing its nucleus, but nobody has an alternative: not the social-democrat family, nor the southern governments, nor France, nor the protest movements. Germany and Angela Merkel keep profiting from the crisis, but shirk the responsibility for all of Europe that befits their hegemonic role. They would like to share responsibility with others, but there is simply no one to share it with.

Angela Merkel is nearing the end of her mandate, and the September elections, with record levels of popularity. Between 60 and 70 percent of Germans approve her management. It is hard to imagine any sharp change of course being driven by German domestic politics. In France the scenario could not be more different; Nicolas Sarkozy's announced return to politics highlights the disorder in the French right. But François Hollande is not making any mileage out of the opposition's disarray, and is losing popularity faster than any recent president. His voter support is down to 25 percent, and his stated rejection of austerity has not translated into any real alternative. France appears impotent, a land allergic to change - any change at all.

The logical thing, then, would be for Berlin to look to Rome or London. For all the skill with which Enrico Letta has steered through the difficulties of his first weeks in power, the government's political situation, dependent on the Senate votes of a harried Berlusconi, is still precarious. The Italian public finances are still cause for concern and the economy is in deep recession, so that, even with a solid government, Italy cannot be expected to function as a partner and counterweight to Germany. Meanwhile, David Cameron has done everything in his power to make the UK irrelevant, sowing doubts about its continued presence in the EU, and eliminating himself from the new cycle of financial and economic integration - a course that is hard to combine with the British aspiration to financial leadership in Europe.

Not even the two major middle-sized countries, Spain and Poland, can play a supporting role. The Spanish economy may have bottomed out, but no recovery is in sight; confidence keeps spiraling downward amid ongoing revelations of corruption. Poland is going through a very different phase, with the strongest government known since the return of democracy in 1989 and reasonably good economic performance. But Poland's absence from the euro zone and its still modest weight mean that Warsaw cannot be Berlin's dancing partner. Even Germany's three closest partners within the euro zone - Austria, Finland and the Low Countries - are problematical, and the enthusiasm felt for austerity in these three countries is mixed with a euro-skepticism driven by buoyant national populist parties. The greatest turnaround has been registered in The Hague, where the government recently questioned what has been the central idea of European integration since the Treaty of Rome in 1957, saying that "the time for an ever-closer Union is past."

All dressed up but no one to go out with: after the elections Germany will be seeking in vain a partner to enable her to lead a new dance acceptable to all the EU states, and at the same time capable of pressuring her sufficiently to balance her attitude. Even if Germany were prepared to act alone, her weight in the EU and even in the euro zone, where after all she represents 27 percent of the total GDP, would not be enough.

The question for September, then, is not what change of course may be expected of Berlin, but who can be the indispensable counterweight to alter the course of disintegration on which the Union seems to be set.

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