POLITICS

Planet Politics: Germany Takes The Lead

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, points as she and the Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras leave after a press con
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, points as she and the Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras leave after a press conference as part of a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Monday, March 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

WASHINGTON -- Germany finally is admitting the obvious.

Two generations and 70 years after a war that left it divided and in ruins, Germany is once again willing not only to play a leading role in Europe -- which it's been doing for years -- but to discuss its role openly and even proudly.

That was the clear message on Monday here from German Ambassador Peter Wittig, who invited reporters to his vast, coolly geometric Bauhaus-style embassy to explain the view of his country -- and the European Union -- on the controversial new financing deal for Greece.

Germany, he said, was acting in the interest of all of Europe, which needs not only a common currency but the integration of “economic and fiscal policy.” In a “rule-oriented” European Union, he said, Greece must accept the same austerity and budget-balancing medicine that had been administered -- with success, he said -- to Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Europe needed to unify and modernize its labor rules, regulations and investment rules to compete in 21st century trade, Wittig said. If Germany was blamed for insisting on as much, then that was a price it would pay, in the interest of a “European project” that has bred peace and prosperity on the continent.

Well-liked and well-connected here, and sure of his ground in talking with Americans, Wittig acknowledged that “there is concern” in Germany about a backlash from its allies against its highly visible role as the bad cop in the Greek drama.

“Leadership comes with strong criticism,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “We are not used to that, quite frankly.

“The U.S. is used to that for a long, long time -- basically 70 years after the second World War. U.S. leadership usually comes with the difficult task to satisfy everybody, but certainly not with great applause and curtain calls.

“Now, that is nature of leadership in the greater community of nations,” he said. “And of course we are facing criticism. Do we like that? I guess, no. I think it also something fairly new in our sort of collective consciousness. But it happens, and it comes along with leadership.”

Asked what role the U.S. -- specifically U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew -- had played in the Greek crisis, Wittig's answer was polite but clear: The U.S. had offered valuable advice and counsel. That is, the U.S. had had no role whatsoever.

In fact, Germany had ignored Lew’s suggestion that Greece needed debt relief and not just another dose of austerity.

Wittig’s open willingness to compare German’s role in Europe to America’s in the world -- and to even proudly admit its role -- was remarkable, at least to some ears here.

“It’s an inflection point, a big change,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama administration official who now studies European affairs at the Brookings Institution. “Germany has preferred to keep a low profile when it can.”

It no longer can, especially since its hard-line stance on fiscal policy drove it to insist on taking the lead in this case.

Even more remarkable than the talk was the action, said Shapiro. Despite a lot of chatter about how France was crucial in the last hours of the negotiations, and how other EU nations were on board, Germany was clearly in the lead at the end.

France, Spain and Italy -- “a big bloc,” said Shapiro -- were far from enthusiastic. The German cheering section comes mainly from smaller nations such as Finland, Slovakia and the Baltic countries, whose main concern is not the fate of Greece but protection for themselves from Russia.

“It’s a little like the coalition that President George W. Bush put together for the second Iraq War,” said Shapiro. “It’s less than meets the eye. And the economic plan is crazy.”

It may be like the second Iraq War for another reason: macroeconomics. The predominant Keynesian view -- still prevalent among academics and many policy-makers outside of debt-obsessed Germany -- is that doubling down on an austerity program for Greece is a folly sure to fail.

Wittig disagreed, not only as a matter of policy but also of domestic politics. EU founding rules forbids “bailouts,” he argued. Moreover, “haircuts” -- forgiveness of intergovernmental loans -- are politically indefensible in Germany. “Greece isn’t the only democracy in Europe,” he said.

As for rifts in Europe, he said, these can be managed, and it will be up to Germany -- openly the power broker -- to handle them.

“Whatever fault lines have been emerging,” he said, "we are hopeful that we can manage them -- to soothe and reconcile divergences that have been merging -- and also maybe criticism and misunderstandings or perceptions of nations.”

Throughout the talks, he said, the Germans and the Greeks had remained cordial, and would continue to be so, he said.

“The German foreign minister met with his Greek counterpart frequently. He, by the way, speaks in excellent German, due to a German wife.

“There was always a bond, a channel of communication open, and there was never any feeling of hostility or of calling out -- and this happened even at the height of the crisis.”

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