Germany. The reluctant leader

Following the joint address of the European Parliament by Angela Merkel and François Hollande, UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage won the applause of fellow eurosceptics by declaring it ironic “that the project [which] was designed to contain German power has now given us a totally German-dominated Europe”.

“Total domination” is surely an overstatement. And such a prospect would frighten Germany as much as its fellow Europeans. But it is true that the EU’s biggest country is increasingly the unannounced leader in Brussels.

This realisation comes with mixed feelings. Some praise Germany for taking responsibility at the time when others cannot or do not want to. Others see the dark shadows of Europe’s past in Berlin taking centre stage.

Yet the emergence of Germany as Europe’s de facto leader is as much a product of the circumstances of the last few years as the result of a deliberate strategy.

Germany managed to retain its status of an economic powerhouse even as the financial crisis sent several big European economies on a downward spiral. Its strong performance compared to France or Italy has given Berlin the confidence and, with it, political clout, especially on all matters economic.

On top of that Angela Merkel, known for her gradual, consensus-based approach rather than long-term political strategising, seems to have the right approach for an EU in crisis. Many people preach “more Europe”, “greater Europe” or “a vision for Europe”. But most of all the Union is in need of concrete solutions for the urgent problems it is facing.

Be it on Greek bailouts, the Ukraine crisis or migration quotas, Merkel’s government has put solutions on the table. Political leaders can accept or reject them, salute Germany’s sense of responsibility or ask it to mind its own business. The fact remains that this practical approach is in demand.

With this combination of a strong market and decisive governance, Germany has filled the void in EU leadership. No wonder Berlin has seen less competition at the EU’s top table, as peers and “usual suspects” are either busy patching up their own economies, or less than certain about their future in the EU in the first place.

But Germany is cautious, at least for now, to jump on opportunities that come with its growing influence. When Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble floated ideas this summer about reforming the EU by taking away significant competition and internal market power from the European Commission and giving them to an “independent” agency, reactions at home were mixed.

This makes sense. As one of the most ardent believers in EU integration, Germany’s ambition is not to be a leader of a fragmented Europe, certainly not to dominate it. For Germany, a carefully-balanced Union that facilitates compromise has been the best possible environment to enable it to play its part in shaping post-war Europe without waving the German flag over it.

So Berlin will do all it can to keep this system in place. It does not strive to be alone at the helm. In this spirit, Germany continues promoting the Franco-German, presumably symmetrical, “twin engine” of Europe, even if the burden of keeping this engine running is increasingly on Berlin’s shoulders. And official Berlin is keen to find ways to ensure that Britain stays in the EU.

Germany is undoubtedly fully engaged in all the fundamental challenges the EU is currently facing. But there is a question mark over how its central role will evolve.

The Greek saga is far from over. So far Berlin has largely got what it wanted, but will that hold? Berlin wants, tentatively, to bring Russia back in from the cold but faces hostility inside the Union. Will Merkel manage to reset relations with Moscow for the whole EU not just Germany?

And then we come to the elephant in the room. The refugee crisis. Merkel tried leadership, perhaps against her best instincts, when she declared Germany was open to more refugees. But she has been heavily criticised ever since, including from inside her own political group, for sending the wrong signals. Fresh leadership is sorely needed on this topic. Can Germany step up or has it fired too early?

Most sensible people understand that the crisis can only be addressed at its origins, far beyond the EU’s borders. And this is where Germany’s traditional comfort zone ends. Leading in international relations is certainly not Germany’s natural inclination. Rather get the EU to do it (with German diplomats, as was the case with the Iran talks). Or follow America’s lead. But will the gravity of the Syrian situation push Berlin to the front?