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A German empire?

A couple of months ago I wrote an essay for the German foreign-policy journal Internationale Politik about the debate about perceived actual or potential German “hegemony” in Europe. In it I argued that Germany was not a hegemon and would not and could not become one – not so much because it was too shy, as some have suggested, but because it was too self-centred and too short-termist. But, extraordinarily, respected analysts on both the left and the right are now going even further and beginning to refer not to German hegemony but to a German “empire” in Europe. This echoes in some ways the debate about American empire that began after the Iraq war in 2003.

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For example, at the end of January, following the revelation in the Financial Times of a plan to install a budget commissioner to oversee Greek spending, an editorial in the Guardian – hardly a Germanophobe newspaper – accused Germany of “fiscal imperialism” and said it planned to create “the eurozone equivalent of a modern-day viceroy” in Greece. In the Financial Times in May, after the election of François Hollande as French president, Martin Wolf criticised the asymmetric adjustment process in the eurozone i.e. deflation in the periphery without inflation in Germany. “This is not a monetary union”, he wrote. “It is far more like an empire.”

Perhaps the most dramatic expression yet of the idea of Germany as empire came from George Soros, who has been a vociferous critic of Germany’s approach to the euro crisis. In a speech in Trento at the beginning of this month, he noted how the terms “centre” and “periphery” – usually associated with empires – were now being routinely used to describe surplus and deficit countries within the eurozone and warned that unless Germany dramatically changed its approach in the next few months, what would emerge would “a German empire with the periphery as the hinterland” in which “the divergence between the creditor and debtor countries would continue to widen and the periphery would turn into permanently depressed areas in need of constant transfer of payments.”

Since there is no simple, shared definition of empire, it’s not clear what exactly what Soros and others have in mind when they use the term in relation to Germany. Above all, the use of the term seems to be a way to try to capture the way that the eurozone seems increasingly to be dominated by one country and is operating in its interests at the expense of others. It is an empire, in other words, because it seems increasingly to be a system of economic relations in which the periphery is exploited by the imperial core. A hub-and-spoke relational structure centred on the core – another characteristic of empire – also seems to be emerging. Another implicit suggestion is that Germany pursuing a kind of a mission civilisatrice by forcing less competitive and fiscally irresponsible eurozone countries to reform.

I’m not yet convinced that, however it is defined, the concept of “empire” is the right one to describe the eurozone, though in some ways it does seem a more appropriate concept than hegemony, which implies a degree of hegemonial consent that does not exist – no one, for example, speaks of a “Berlin consensus”. But whether it is right or wrong, the perception of an emerging German empire in Europe is a rather alarming development. One consequence of this perception is that it makes “more Europe” – which Germans tend to see as a way to assuage other Europeans’ fears about German power – a problematic idea. In fact, “more Europe” may simply feel to many like more of what Kalypso Nicolaïdis calls “soft domination” by Germany.