Greek Economic Crisis Exposes Political Rift at EU Core Between Paris and Berlin     Print

Ugly Language Aggravates Tensions

In the corridors outside President Obama’s nuclear summit, much of the talk was not about nuclear matters but instead about how the Greek economic crisis has metastasized into a quarrel between Germany and France and now jeopardizes the prospects for more effective European unity. So a crisis that began in Greece has mutated to be about Germany and its commitment to Europe, as described in this New York Times article that has attracted attention and discussion in Washington.

The tensions may subside if the markets relent toward Greece on the basis of reassuring promises from EU capitals about helping Athens. And they may ease after German regional elections next month give Berlin more room for maneuver.

For the moment, however, there is a rising populist tide across southern Europe and in segments of French opinion that is castigating Germany for wanting to impose its own austere budgetary attitudes on neighboring countries at a moment dire hardship and public unrest in these nations. Germany is certainly “right” that more profligate members of the eurozone have flouted the rules. But the question is whether Germany would be “wise” to persist too strongly and too long in imposing its views. Is Berlin still committed to ensuring that Germany stays “European” at all costs? Or is Berlin moving into an era of strong self-assertion in which it is ready to see Europe become more “German.”

On this issue, as Greece teeters between bankruptcy and bailout, the economic crisis has laid bare a wider and deeper political cleavage between France and Germany, the leading nations in the eurozone. It has been an axiom of European integration that no advances toward a closer union can succeed without joint support from these two nations, a tandem often dubbed “the motor of Europe.”

Currently, that engine is sputtering and appears close to stalling. Policy divergences about how to handle the Greek problem are aggravated by an apparent clash of temperament between Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy. The French leader was recently quoted as telling a friend that the Germans “haven’t changed at all,” with Le Monde saying that his remark referred to Berlin’s recurrent instinct to try to impose German control over the rest of Europe, at least on economic policy.

He and many other Europeans are openly critical of Mrs. Merkel’s reluctance to put money on the table to staunch the Greece’s draining credibility in the bond markets, which are charging Athens higher and higher rates to borrow money to service the national debt. France, defending its own position as a co-leader of the EU, is also speaking up more generally for “southern EU” nations that tend to be profligate and are reluctant in the current crisis to live up to the strict budget rules followed (and prescribed) by Germany.

These political divergences have been aggravated by clashes in temperament and timing between Merkel and Sarkozy and between Berlin and Paris in a series of recent incidents.

EU leaders’ record of success in reaching temporary compromises (and even fudging issues when there is no other alternative) are being put to a severe test in this crisis – perhaps the most severe in a generation.