Angela Merkel is a skilful politician who has stayed at the top of German politics for a long time. This is not the same thing as a strong Germany. She inherited a tradition of making compromises for the Euro and the EU, and has made many more as the contradictions and tensions of the Euro scheme have come to the fore. Judging by what Germany has done on a whole range of “red lines”, we must conclude that Germany does give in to pressure if the cohesion of the Eurozone or the EU is under attack.
The long retreat from German principles began under Mrs Merkel’s predecessor when Germany allowed Greece and other countries that came nowhere near meeting the criteria to join the Euro to be part of the project. Under Mrs Merkel Germany has conceded over the issue of making all member states keep their budget deficits below 3%. Only recently again France has been allowed more leeway. Germany unsuccessfully opposed lending large sums to banks in trouble in the zone. Germany gave in over the huge programme of quantitative easing. Germany has been persuaded to accept a currency that regularly devalues against the dollar, yuan and sterling instead of maintaining a strong currency as Germany always argued for.
The concessions have been biggest over Greece. Germany stated strongly that Greece would not be able to borrow a Euro more unless it stuck to the loan agreements and continued with budget austerity and economic reform. Instead in recent months the European Central Bank has made available large new sums to Greece. This is money some commentators think the ECB and its main shareholders including Germany will not get back. The European authorities have also allowed Greece to borrow more through Treasury Bills to pay for the costs of government. Meanwhile Greece refuses to cut pensions more, to implement labour market reforms, and to cut the deficit as much as the European authorities want. Now there is talk of Germany relaxing the requirements for reform to allow new longer term loans to start to supplant the weekly doses of more lending from the ECB.
It appears that Germany, like the ECB, is extraordinarily flexible. It appears that the budget deficit targets, demands for economic reform, limits on borrowing and requirement for a strong currency mean little, and all can be changed if a country digs in enough. Mr Cameron should take note. It appears Germany wants to keep the UK in the EU. That means we have plenty of bargaining power, given Germany’s well known flexibility. If Germany can be flexible on printing money, on lending more to countries that have already borrowed too much, and on having a weak currency, I am sure she could also be flexible on how many EU decisions the UK just has to accept. They can carry on selling us cars whatever happens, but at risk for them is the UK’s large financial contribution to the EU.