In the last two weeks, the two crises confronting Europe – in Ukraine and Greece – both escalated. In each case, Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, were at the heart of efforts to achieve a diplomatic resolution. This is a new role for Germany, and the country is not yet accustomed to it.
The latest attempt to halt the war in eastern Ukraine by diplomatic means had an even shorter shelf life than the first attempt last September. The new accord – concluded, like the previous one, in Minsk – de facto recognized that Ukraine has been split by military means. But just where the dividing line is remains unclear, because Russian President Vladimir Putin may yet attempt to capture the strategic port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, thereby enabling the Kremlin to create a land bridge between Russia and the Crimea peninsula. Moreover, capturing Mariupol would keep open the option of conquering southern Ukraine, including Odessa, and extending Russian control all the way to Transnistria, Russia’s illegal enclave in Moldova.
Through the continued use of military force, Putin has achieved the main aim of Russia’s policy: control over eastern Ukraine and ongoing destabilization of the country as a whole. Indeed, Minsk II is merely a reflection of facts on the ground.
The question remains, however, whether it would have been smarter to let the one power that Putin takes seriously – the United States – conduct the negotiations. Given Putin’s low regard for Europe, this will most likely become unavoidable, sooner or later.
Still, despite the risks involved, it is important that Germany and France, in coordination with the European Union and the US, undertook this diplomatic effort. Though the Minsk II initiative exposed Europe’s meager political clout, it also confirmed the indispensability of Franco-German cooperation, as well as Germany’s changed role within the EU.
Merkel herself reflects this changed role. Her ten years in power were largely characterized by a new German Biedermeier era. The sun was shining on Germany and its economy, and Merkel regarded it as her highest duty to maintain citizens’ sense of wellbeing by not disturbing them with politics. But Germany’s new significance in Europe has put a brutal end to Merkel’s neo-Biedermeier era. She no longer defines her policies in terms of “small steps”; now she takes strategic threats seriously and confronts them head-on.
This is also true of the Greek crisis, in which Merkel – despite her public image in southern Europe – was not aligned with the hawks in her party and administration. Indeed, Merkel seems to be well aware of the unmanageable risks of a Greek exit from the euro – although it remains to be seen whether she can muster the determination to revise the failed austerity policy imposed on Greece.
Without such a revision aimed at boosting growth, Europe will remain alarmingly weak both internally and externally. Given Russia’s attack on Ukraine, this is a dismal prospect, because internal weakness and external threats are directly linked.
Greece has also shown that the euro crisis is less a financial crisis than a sovereignty crisis. With the recent election of the anti-austerity Syriza party, Greek voters stood up against external control over their country by the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), Germany, or anyone else. Yet if Greece is to be saved from bankruptcy, it will have only foreign taxpayers’ money to thank for it. And it will be nearly impossible to convince European taxpayers and governments to provide further billions of euros without verifiable guarantees and the necessary reforms.
The Greek conflict shows that Europe’s monetary union is not working because one country’s democratically legitimized sovereignty has run up against other countries’ democratically legitimized sovereignty. Nation-states and a monetary union do not sit well together. But it is not hard to understand that, should “Grexit” occur, the only geopolitical winner would be Russia, whereas in Europe, everyone stands to lose.
Though the geopolitical risks have, so far, barely figured in the German debate, they greatly outweigh any domestic policy risks of finally coming clean with the German public. Greece, Germans should be told, will remain a eurozone member, and preserving the euro will require further steps toward integration, up to and including transfers and debt mutualization, provided that the appropriate institutions for this are established.
Such a step will require courage, but the alternatives – continuation of the eurozone crisis or a return to a system of nation-states – are far less attractive. (Germany has a new national-conservative party whose leaders’ declared aim is to pursue a pre-1914 foreign policy.) In view of the dramatic global changes and the direct military threat to Europe posed by Putin’s Russia, these alternatives are no alternative at all, and the Greek “problem” looks insignificant.
Merkel and French President François Hollande should seize the initiative once again and finally put the eurozone on a sound footing. Germany will have to loosen its beloved purse strings, and France will have to surrender some of its precious political sovereignty. The alternative is to stand by idly and watch Europe’s nationalists become stronger, while the European integration project, despite six decades of success, staggers ever closer to the abyss.