BERLIN/VENICE – As the European Union begins to disintegrate, who can provide the leadership to save it? German Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely credited with finally answering Henry Kissinger’s famous question about the Western alliance: “What is the phone number for Europe?” But if Europe’s phone number has a German dialing code, it goes through to an automated answer: “Nein zu Allem.”
This phrase – “No to everything” – is how Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, recently described the standard German response to all economic initiatives aimed at strengthening Europe. A classic case was Merkel’s veto of a proposal by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to fund refugee programs in Europe, North Africa, and Turkey through an issue of EU bonds, an efficient and low-cost idea also advanced by leading financiers such as George Soros.
Merkel’s high-handed refusal even to consider broader European interests if these threaten her domestic popularity has become a recurring nightmare for other EU leaders. This refusal underpins not only her economic and immigration policies, but also her bullying of Greece, her support for coal subsidies, her backing of German carmakers over diesel emissions, her kowtowing to Turkey on press freedom, and her mismanagement of the Minsk agreement in Ukraine. In short, Merkel has done more to damage the EU than any living politician, while constantly proclaiming her passion for “the European project.”
But where can a Europe disillusioned with German leadership now turn? The obvious candidates will not or cannot take on the role: Britain has excluded itself; France is paralyzed until next year’s presidential election and possibly beyond; and Spain cannot even form a government.