German Europe or European Germany?

The UK’s vote in June to leave the European Union not only changed the course of British history, but also underscored fundamental questions about Germany’s role in Europe and the world. With the migration crisis weakening German Chancellor Angela Merkel politically just when her authority in Europe is most needed, the new “German Question” can no longer be avoided.

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CAMBRIDGE – Even before voters in the United Kingdom decided in June to “Brexit” the European Union, notes Anatole Kaletsky of Gavekal Dragonomics, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was widely credited with “finally answering Henry Kissinger’s famous question about the Western alliance: ‘What is the phone number for Europe?’”

Brexit merely confirmed the point: UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s first foreign trip after replacing David Cameron in July was to Berlin. If Merkel has the power to mold the relationship between the EU and the UK, as May appears to believe, she also has the power to shape the post-Brexit EU.

The question is what type of Europe Germany wants. For Princeton University’s Harold James, “Brexit means Germany can no longer rely on its liberal, more market-oriented ally around the discussion table.” But Kaletsky wonders whether Germany wants to discuss much of anything at all. “If Europe’s phone number has a German dialing code,” he quips, “it goes through to an automated answer: ‘Nein zu Allem.’”

But Europe can no longer afford what Kaletsky describes as “the standard German response to all economic initiatives aimed at strengthening Europe.” As many Project Syndicate commentators point out, Europe’s global influence depends on further integration. And that is impossible without determined German leadership, which may now be hard to find. Indeed, with “public support for the government…” having “fallen below 50%,” Michael Bröning of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung wonders if Merkel will even seek “reelection as her party’s candidate for another term.”