At a conference with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Monday, April 22, German Chancellor Angela Merkel directly addressed concerns about her country's role in the euro crisis.
In the face of swelling resentment against German influence over EU economic policies in many parts of Europe, Ms. Merkel is under increasing pressure to assure fellow Europeans that her country is indeed not seeking economic hegemony over the euro zone. "Germany will only do something together with the other [countries]. Hegemony is to me totally foreign.", she stated.
As the largest economy in Europe, Germany has put up the lion's share of the bailout funds to weaker economies of countries like Spain, Greece and, most recently, Cyprus, and with this financial assistance has come German-imposed terms that call for austerity and anti-inflation measures. With unemployment rising, southern banks teetering on the edge of insolvency, and no end to the crisis in sight, demonstrators have taken to the street to protest what they see as harsh measures dictated by an overweening Germany.
One example of the hostility directed at Berlin can be found in the recent case of Cyprus. After the EU, together with IMF, proposed a plan to place a one-time surcharge on bank deposits in Cyprus, protests erupted on the streets, with Cypriots seen carrying placards likening Ms. Merkel to the notorious German dictator Adolf Hitler.
In this tense climate, Ms. Merkel is struggling to prove to her EU neighbors that Germany is simply doing what is necessary to ensure that its financial contribution has its intended effect, and at the same time she is trying to convince other members of the EU that her philosophy of austerity is the right way to steer Europe out of the crisis. Her critics, however, see her moves in a different light. They proffer the idea that Germany has benefited disproportionally from the euro since its inception-perhaps at the expense of other EU countries- and they see her moves as attempts to consolidate power.
This debate over the real intentions behind German economic policy has raged not just at the level of street protests but amongst intellectuals all over Europe. A Spanish economist, Juan Torres Lopez, weighed in with this comment in the Spanish newspaper El Pais: "Angela Merkel, like Hitler, has declared war on the rest of the Continent, this time to guarantee Germany its vital economic space." This accusation, with its allusion to the Nazi doctrine of Lebensraum, the notion that a supposed superior race required a larger "living space" outside of its current borders, provoked protests of its own. The newspaper responded by withdrawing the article from its web site.
Other commentators see the issue from a different perspective and emphasize the large financial burden that Germany is carrying. Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times had this to say, "It seems a bit harsh that Germany is extending loans of hundreds of billions of euros to its neighbors, only to be accused of neo-Nazism in return."
An irony in this issue is the fact that the EU, with its common currency, was founded in large part to prevent yet another outbreak of war on the European continent by checking German power, but at this point it is exactly German economic might that is playing the central role in holding the EU together. Cambridge University history professor Brendan Simms summed it up like this, "That is the dilemma of German power today. Germany is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't."