NEW YORK — As leaders of European Union states erected a wall of euros to defend the common currency from the Greek debt crisis on Sunday, the head of the EU’s most important economy decided she would go to Moscow instead.
While investors continued to punish Greece for its profilacy, Angela Merkel, the conservative German chancellor, accepted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's invitation to the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stayed home given the gravity of the crisis facing the EU. Merkel appeared far less concerned with the euro’s fall. And the following day, when Merkel’s cabinet dutifully approved the nearly $1 trillion emergency bailout package, they did so entirely without enthusiasm.
That Merkel choose to spend the weekend in Moscow playing Putin’s foil at the anniversary parade speaks to the changes afoot not only in Germany, but also more broadly across Europe.
It can’t have been entirely comfortable for Merkel, representing Germany, to review the legions of Red Army veterans, millions of whom died at the hands of the German invasion decades ago. But Germany, heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and increasingly unwilling to follow Washington’s lead in the wider world, has been putting its own national interests ahead of European unity of late. That is a major milestone in the country’s post-war history.
It’s not just Germany, either. Across the Atlantic, the nations that represented America’s most reliable allies since the end of World War II are changing.
Britain’s election last week remains unresolved, but whether the next government is led by a Tory, Labour or a Liberal Democrat, skepticism of American leadership in the world is rife. The Conservatives, who look most likely to form a government, have railed against Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labour predecessor, Tony Blair, for allegedly kow-towing to Washington. Conservatives likely cut a far more independent swath in the coming years.
Turkey, another regional power who relied for decades on close ties with Washington, also has evolved away from that relationship. Beginning with the decision not to allow American troops to launch a northern front against Iraq from Turkish territory in 2003, U.S.-Turkish ties have stagnated, coinciding with Turkey’s increasing frustration with the EU, which it has been trying to join for decades.
The Turkish response has been to seek more fertile ground, improving ties with Middle Eastern nations like Iran and Syria, opening new commercial ventures with Russian and Chinese firms and all but abandoning its once hopeful role as an intermediary between Israel and Arab rivals like Syria. (Israel, of course, has had its own problems with Washington of late, but that’s another story.)
Meanwhile, given what’s going on in the EU, Turkey may be rethinking that cherished goal.
Germany’s “awakening,” as some are putting it, has proven the most surprising to American policymakers and their EU partners, however. This appears to be driven, in part, by a genuine sense among Germans that the burden of guilt associated with the Hitler years is now fading and that Germany needs to make its voice heard on the international stage.
But domestic politics, too, plays a big part. The Brussels EU parley Sunday night that agreed to create a $957-billion rescue fund is hardly something Merkel wanted to attend. She and everyone else knows the largest share of that money will come out of the wallets of German taxpayers.
German voters, who saw their savings devalued in 1990 in order to absorb East Germany and then sacrificed the stability and prestige of the Deutsche Mark nine years later to help create the euro, have had enough.
Partly based on the bills already presented for the bailout of the Greeks, voters dealt Merkel’s Christian Democrats their worst result since World War II in Sunday’s local elections in Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, costing her coalition control of the upper chamber of the German parliament. Given those facts, making amends in Moscow probably looked a bit less unpleasant.
The bigger question is whether Germany’s unhappiness with its role as the EU’s “lender of last resort” could ultimately threaten the very project Germany embraced to cleanse itself of Hitler’s sins.
Polls already show most Germans regret the loss of the Deutsche Mark, and few feel they should be bailing out Greece or other nearly insolvent EU members like Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain. And Germans have no interest in continuing to maintain thousands of troops with NATO’s Afghanistan mission, either.
So is the EU headed for a break up?
Probably not, but something’s got to give. Germany agreed to the bailout of Greece this time around, and reluctantly persists in Afghanistan, too. But German voters have put their leaders and neighbors on notice: If you want European unity, then pay for it yourself.