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Germany’s Power Problem

BRUSSELS – It is a short tram ride from the massive building that houses the European Union’s Council of Ministers to the Brussels office of the German think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP). On a recent morning, both provided equally revealing illustrations of Germany’s growing political clout in Europe.

The topic under discussion at the SWP was the re-elected British government’s planned “in-out” referendum on EU membership, and how to handle the run-up to it. At the same moment, an encounter was taking place at the Council of Ministers between German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and his British counterpart, George Osborne, who will be leading the “renegotiation” of his country’s relationship with the EU.

Germany’s approach to policymaking on European affairs is often somewhat schizophrenic, by turns brutal and subtle. Its tough, no-nonsense approach to the Greek debt crisis contrasts with its confusingly nuanced and even pacifist stance on foreign-policy and security issues, or its controversial abandonment of nuclear energy.

In the recent exchange at the Council of Ministers, Germany’s iron fist was on display when Schäuble reportedly dismissed Osborne’s views on reform of the eurozone as “silly.” He is understood to have used this routine monthly meeting of EU finance ministers to signal to Osborne that the United Kingdom should forget any ideas it may have about major treaty changes.