Germany has become the world’s indispensable nation, but how long can it hold the line alone?

How long can Merkel manage?
How long can Merkel manage?
Image: Reuters/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool
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The world is counting on Germany. With the United States having entered into a period of chronic fecklessness—with Britain exiting the European Union and France bitterly divided against itself—Germany is the Western power left standing.

Radek Sikorski, then Poland’s foreign minister, was simply ahead of the curve in 2011, when he described Germany as Europe’s “indispensable nation. “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is.” he said, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity … You may not fail to lead.” But is Germany capable of meeting such expectations? Or is it destined to be the last one left to turn out the lights?

Germany has dominated European domestic policy since the 2008 Greek debt crisis, which was managed by the duumvirate of chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. Spain and Italy never recovered their pre-recession political stature. France steadily weakened after François Hollande’s election to the presidency in 2012. Britain drifted away, while the Netherlands—with the sixth-largest economy in the EU—followed the German line.

Germany has come to dominate European foreign policy as well. Europe’s two main foreign policy challenges are Russia and immigration. Germany has steered policy on the first since the Ukraine crisis began in 2013, and has backed sanctions on Russia since the annexation of Crimea and the shoot-down of a Malaysia Airlines flight above Ukraine in 2014. Germany has also masterminded immigration policy since the arrival of large numbers of Syrian refugees in 2015.

In both cases, German primacy is rooted in economics. Germany is Russia’s second-largest source of imports and its third largest market for exports. Germany’s economic opportunities also make it the most desirable destination for immigrants after the US.

This makes Germany powerful but exposed. Many Europeans (notably in Italy and Spain) would like the Russia sanctions lifted. Three of the four leading first-round presidential candidates in France—though not the likely winner of round two this Sunday, Emmanuel Macron—were pro-Russia. Likewise, Merkel’s welcome to refugees in September 2015 brought both admiration and an almost immediate political backlash. While Merkel led Europe in idealism (“It was the right thing to do”), she went on to lead in something more like cynicism in crafting the European Union’s 2016 agreement to pay Turkey to keep refugees out of Europe.

Turkey shelters about three million refugees from Syria. Lebanon has over a million, and Jordan has some 650,000. None of these countries need Syrian refugees any more than Europe does, and really a great deal less. Merkel nonetheless sees the Turkey deal as a model for other countries that are transit points for migrants of many kinds seeking to reach Europe. EU leaders in February 2017 signed an agreement to pay for housing migrants in Libya and improving methods to keep them onshore. European Union members cannot agree among themselves how to distribute non-European migrants within the EU, but they do agree that they’d prefer them to stay away. It doesn’t much matter where.

Hungary: the enemy within?

Weirdly enough, these various concerns all came together in an extraordinary piece of political theater last week in Brussels. The ostensible subject was academic freedom. The Hungarian government, led since 2010 by Viktor Orban, has been refining what Orban calls “illiberal democracy,” one aspect of which apparently involves controlling the budgets of private universities.

Hungary’s legislature passed a law in April that could well make it impossible for Central European University (CEU), founded 26 years ago with the support of George Soros, to continue functioning. Orban and his party, Fidesz, have been using Soros, who emigrated from Budapest in 1947, as a punching bag for many years, but this seemed mainly a local quirk until passage of the law known as “lex CEU.”

CEU fought back. Its rector, Michael Ignatieff, an author, academic and former leader of Canada’s Liberal party, rallied support in Washington and European capitals, especially Brussels. Tens of thousands of Hungarians repeatedly took to the streets of Budapest to defend CEU, the largest protests the Orban government had ever seen.

All of which led Orban to appear before the European Parliament last week and defend himself. But while he mentioned CEU a few times, Orban focused on Soros:

We have a dispute partly with you and partly with an American financial speculator. I know that the power, size and weight of Hungary is much smaller than that of the financial speculator, George Soros, who is now attacking Hungary and who–despite ruining the lives of millions of European people with his financial speculations, and being penalized in Hungary for speculations, and who is an openly admitted enemy of the euro–is so highly praised that he is received by the EU’s top leaders…It is important information that George Soros and his NGOs want to transport one million migrants to the EU per year…Hungarians have always considered themselves an important nation, devoted to the Christian values of Europe, and wanted to have their say in the decisions that concerned them.

Orban was not alone in raging around off-topic in a swirl of aggression, obsession and hurt feelings. Nigel Farage, a principal author of Brexit and for now a member of the European Parliament, said: “Institutions like this are led by fanatics. They are turning this [the EU] into a state that the nation-state cannot exist alongside….Who knows, you might join the Brexit club!”

The German politician Beatrix von Storch added, “Today we are supposedly discussing your new university law in Hungary but we all know that’s not what it is about. It is about Hungarian defiance” of the “left-leaning Zeitgeist.” She said Hungary simply wanted to be left alone, without “Muslim mass migration,” to be a Christian country. The alternatives could be seen in Paris—a state of emergency—or in Stockholm, “the world capital of rape,” owing to migration. Von Storch is a representative of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, as well as a duchess in the Oldenburg line.

Several MEPs equated the EU with the Soviet Union in its eagerness to crush the democratic expression of Hungarians. Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega Nord noted, “Instead of the tanks you’re using the banks, finance and an invasion of immigrants”; he said to Orban, “Thank you for resisting the Soviet-EU diktats.” Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium and the MEP charged with the Brexit negotiations, asked Orban whether he wanted to be remembered as “an eternal enemy of our open European, democratic society”, adding, “What is the next thing? Burning books on the place before the parliament in Hungary?”

Listening to European Parliament debates, it becomes easier to understand why Europe’s leading nations would want to hoard decision-making power, as Germany, France, Italy and Spain elected to do earlier this year in a meeting on “two-speed Europe” at Versailles. As Merkel put it, in “a time of tension” Europe needs “the ability to act.”

After the Parliament’s Hungary debate, the Financial Times editorialized that Orban’s government is “an affront to EU values,” but while it endorsed the prospect of a letter asking Hungary to explain how the lex CEU could possibly be in conformity with EU law, the newspaper also recognized that this was “a small stick.” So it said that “Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, would send a strong signal in defense of EU values by initiating moves to expel Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party from the European People’s party bloc.”

The striking thing is that sanctioning a small member state for attacking a university would be such a lift that only Germany could be expected to do it.

It’s also striking that Germany probably won’t. With Brexit at hand and France distracted, Germany’s priority is holding the EU together, and taking unprecedented action against a member state is not likely to help with that. (For example, expelling Fidesz from the European People’s party bloc, were Merkel’s party able to do it, could dramatically reduce the bloc’s own power in Brussels. However, broader EPP discomfort with Orban might be having some effect.) Hungary’s rather sadistic migration policies have faced no effective opposition within the EU and little enough rebuke.

Germany needs allies, not enemies. Above all it needs a revived France. As Joschka Fischer, former foreign minister of Germany, wrote over the weekend, it is crucial “to dispel the illusion that the EU can survive under a regime of exclusive German leadership.” With Britain on the way out, Fischer notes, Germany needs a France that is capable not only of prospering but of winning a few arguments with Germany, including on economic questions that German conservatives have tended to consider non-negotiable. German domination of the EU, whatever benefits it might have for “the ability to act,” will speed the nationalist backlash against it that has been slowly building for a decade. Germany can’t keep the lights on by itself.