Berlin’s devotion to rules harms EU

by Mark Mazower – August 2, 2015

Financial Times

The proposed bailout settlement for Greece that Germany has crafted has been criticised in many quarters for its harshness. But it is a kind of harshness for which historical analogies are elusive.

Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, called it a kind of Versailles Treaty for the 21st century — only worse. But there was no war, at least not a real one. Others have described it as turning Greece into an economic protectorate or a new kind of colony. But the language of imperialism was woolly even when Lenin used it.

In fact, Germany’s dominance of the EU is based neither on its army nor on a colonising impulse but on rules. Rules matter, of course, but rarely have they become so synonymous with leadership. Why do they now matter so much?

In the past the nation’s might was associated less with crafting rules than with breaking them. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s generals took the military suspicion of legal constraints to extremes. Hitler went much further. He did not believe in sharing power at all.

Contemporary German politics is built upon a deep revulsion from these ideas of leadership. Berlin’s commitment to Europe is heartfelt and so is its investment in institution-building. Constructing European institutions that make decisions jointly helps allay old suspicions and make the country’s economic supremacy more palatable.

The same reasoning lies behind its devotion to rules. There are two kinds of superpower: those, like the Third Reich, that see rules as fetters; and those that see them as useful tools of international management. The latter is how the US, following the British example, exercised power globally through the second half of the 20th century, and it is now Germany’s modus operandi in the eurozone.

Because rules are by definition collective, they satisfy the second lesson that the disasters of the Third Reich taught contemporary German diplomacy: never stand alone. Nothing was more notable during the fraught discussions of the past months than the country’s desire not to find itself isolated. Fortunately for Berlin, other north and eastern European states were willing to sign up to its hard line. Germany simply cannot afford to let Europe look like a fig leaf for self-interest.

Yet rules often do just that. As German conservative jurist Carl Schmitt once said, the hegemon’s power lies in its ability to set norms. And, we might add, to determine which apply to itself. Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court often has the last word on which rules will apply at home.

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