The Irish Times – Thursday, June 24, 2010
DEREK SCALLY in Berlin
GERMAN POLICY on Europe has taken on a “pompous Wilhelmine slant” under Angela Merkel, according to former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, now 82.
Mr Schmidt has accused the Berlin administration of foreign policy delusions not seen since the Kaiser era, particularly in Franco-German relations.
“What is really bad in Berlin is the pompous Wilhelmine slant,” he told Cicero magazine, referring to expansive and aggressive German foreign policy under successive Kaiser Wilhelms until 1918.
“The way in which our government has treated the French in the last months – and, vice versa, how the French have treated Merkel – has been foolish on both sides.” Mr Schmidt’s complaints of a new German “national egotism” in Europe echo recent criticism by philosopher Jürgen Habermas and former foreign minister Joschka Fischer.
Mr Schmidt predicted the emergence of a pragmatic group proceeding with further integration, led by Berlin and Paris, “without institutional or constitutional structure”. However, he warned that stable budgetary policies should not be confused with a reckless pursuit of austerity. “One can overdo budget reorganisation and then drive the entire market into deflation,” he said.
That was a position shared by financier George Soros in a speech at Berlin’s Humboldt University yesterday. He warned that Berlin was so obsessed with “treating the Maastricht Treaty as gospel” that it was blind to the danger of driving its euro zone neighbours into deflation.
The failure of the Maastricht Treaty to address the danger of deflation as well as inflation was, he said, a serious flaw. “Germany can’t be blamed for wanting a strong currency and a balanced budget but it can be blamed for imposing this on other countries with different needs,” said Mr Soros, an obsession he likened to the practice of mythological Procrustes of inviting people to sleep in an iron bed then stretching or cutting them to fit.
“The Procrustes bed inflicted on the euro zone is deflation. With its insistence on pro-cyclical policy, Germany is endangering the European Union. I realise this is a grave accusation but I’m afraid it’s justified.”
Meanwhile Mr Schmidt’s remarks generated a mixed reaction in Berlin yesterday.
The opposition Social Democrats (SPD) agreed with the analysis of its former leader.
“The Europe policy of the Merkel government is a disaster,” said Angelica Schwall-Düren, the party’s Europe spokesperson, citing the Greek and euro zone rescue plans. “She has distanced herself from the European political tenets of her predecessors.”
Leading European think tanks were more critical about Mr Schmidt’s “Wilhelmine” remarks. “As much as I see his point, that Germany is being perceived in Europe in a negative way, Kaiser Wilhelm had a master plan for Europe whereas in Berlin at the moment it is government by default,” said Ulrike Guérot, Berlin head of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“What is not taken into account abroad is that Germany is exhausted and disoriented,” she said. “After decades as the only truly European country, and after carrying the largest share of the European project politically and financially for so long, it has reached the limits of its capabilities in Europe.”
A spokesman for Dr Merkel declined to comment directly, adding that the only monarch in Dr Merkel’s chancellery office was a portrait of Catherine the Great.
“She admires her as a strong woman, not because she shares her political views,” he said, adding hastily “and certainly not the views of the Kaiser.”