Germany is the economic hegemon of Europe ‑ not a position it has sought, but a greatness thrust upon it by its own industrial efficiency and cautious financial policies. The weakness of (especially) the southern European states also helped, as did those states’ years’ long binge fueled by cheap credit that Germany, among other states, provided. Now, as with all binges, there is regret, huge headaches and New Year’s resolutions never to be much better in the future.
Angela Merkel, the careful, modest first-woman chancellor is the most obvious symbol of the new hegemon. In Europe, newspapers and some politicians of the left and right stoop so low as to lard their journalism and allusions to her with increasingly overt reference to “Panzers” and “Third Reich.” In her own country, presently, the reverse: She rides high in the polls, far above any other figure, so much so that it seems as if there is no alternative – a phrase once used by that other first-woman leader, Margaret Thatcher.
Merkel’s stature has grown in a way that is rare for leaders other than U.S. presidents. She’s powerful because of what she does beyond her country’s borders. She has ridden the waves and storms of the past two years and has struck a middle course – pressing radical change on the debtor countries, largely in Europe’s south, but supporting them (crucially, the ailing Greece) when required. She has reminded the electorate at home that Europe must be saved if Germany is to prosper but has appeared hard enough in her demands for restructuring of the economies of debtor states to deserve the soubriquet of the Iron Chancellor. Her Christian Democratic Union party is also far ahead of the Social Democratic Party, at some 41 percent.
There is an alternative in Germany, and it may win out in elections set for the fall of this year. But unlike the instability that next month’s election in Italy promises, Merkel’s opposition underscores two large facts about Europe’s superpower, about which Henry Kissinger once quipped, “too big for Europe and too small for the world.”
First, in the midst of the doleful turmoil that is Europe’s economy, Germany is moderate and stable, the very model of a shy hegemon. Second, the main opposition, which may overturn her government, is the best proof of that stability and moderation.