Since the end of World War II, it has been a truism that as Germany goes, so goes Europe. Leaving out Russia, whose circumstances are different, no country in Europe has as much impact on the rest of the continent today as does the Federal Republic of Germany.
Britain is in the process of getting out of Europe, and France is weak and in no position to lead Europe anywhere except perhaps into bankruptcy. Its military, while good in many areas, is small and unable to bear the load for Europe.
Another factor that has had an impact on the politics of Europe has been the U.S. presidential election. Much of Europe is confused about what it means for the continent.
Let us return to Germany, which faces a major decision when it elects a chancellor next year. In fact the decision has implications for the United States and all of Europe, including Russia. At this point, it’s likely that Chancellor Angela Merkel will win a fourth term.
But why? She has been in office for 11 years. First, it is important to understand postwar Germany. Ever since the Bundesrepublik was established in 1949, it has been democratic yet also dominated by the chancellor. Several chancellors were larger-than-life figures: Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. Merkel gets reelected primarily because of the number of German parties as well as splits within them. Coalitions were always necessary, but if anything was going to get done, it seemed that the government had to be dominated by one figure, and for the last decade it has been Merkel.
In that time, Merkel and Germany have been in a state of stability. Germany has been the strongest economic and political power on the continent. So it has been natural for the rest of Europe to look to Germany for leadership in periods of instability and confusion. Only Germany’s continued existence as a major power will keep Europe together. Germany will continue to be the symbol of security and stability that the smaller countries desperately need. Most observers believe the European Union collapse would be inevitable without German leadership.
There are bad signs on the horizon. For example, this very day a constitutional referendum is being held in France. If it fails, early and unpredictable elections could be held in 2017 and could bring France’s far right into the government.
In Italy, meanwhile, today’s election could be won by the Five Star Movement. This party wants to leave the Eurozone. Italy in the spring will hold presidential elections whose outcome also will be unpredictable.
Suppose nationalist organizations win a majority in both upcoming elections. This would put Germany in a difficult situation. Berlin would have to change its policies to protect its sovereignty. This would mean planning for the demise of the EU, a situation that would turn German politics upside down. In the meantime, the Baltic nations as well as most of eastern Europe and Austria will look to Germany for guidance. As always, Moscow will remain the wild card. How will U.S.Russian ties develop under Donald Trump? Will he and Vladimir Putin create a new rapprochement? What if the two giants sign key bilateral agreements that exclude Europe?
Germany would have to reconsider its relationships with both Moscow and Washington. What about sanctions that the EU has imposed on Russia? Would they remain in place? How could the United States justify them if its relationship with the Kremlin warms up? At present, much of the architecture of the Cold War is still visible in Europe, but that would change quickly if Trump and Putin become best buddies.
The military picture would also change radically in that event. There is no way Germany could replace the United States militarily in the region. Germany’s inventory is severely lacking in areas such as logistics and weapons, among other things. Depending on how Washington’s relationship develops with Europe, Moscow could have a field day manipulating matters on the continent.
The German government already faces severe problems such as integrating hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. This policy is both expensive and has been resisted by many, if not most, Germans. Much of their unhappiness has landed on Merkel.
In the meantime, whether one likes her or not, Merkel is the only politician in Germany or Europe with the prestige, the reputation, the respect and the willingness to take on the task. Anyone else would only split Germany internally and be unable to unify Europe.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U. S. diplomat and Navy captain.