The New European Political Trend: Blame Germany

The country's austerity plans and hard debt limits are fueling anger across the continent.

merkel may1 p.jpg
German Chancellor Merkel speaks at an election rally. Reuters

Who will take the fall for Europeans' frustration with Europe right now: the European Union, Germany, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel? It seems to typically be one of those three. As the French presidential election comes to a close, that's one of the crucial questions -- particularly across the border in Germany. Each of the top three French candidates has expressed dissatisfaction with Germany's leadership in the E.U. -- in fact, they're campaigning on a promise to follow Germany's lead a bit less. "Germany doesn't decide for all of Europe," frontrunner François Hollande said a few days ago. 

Naturally, this quote was reported in the German papers, too, where there's an increasing awareness of the antipathy pouring eastwards. "Germany as Enemy," reads one headline for a story on the French election.

The backlash against Germany has to do with the austerity plans the country has championed, including the hard debt limits. This is certainly one of the objections the German papers, in trying to explain the French response, are focusing on. One writeup suggests that François Hollande won his 28.2 percent share of the vote in the election's first round over "his clear rejection of German austerity policy." Part of the backlash is also likely against the other major component of German economic policy: the costly bailouts for periphery countries such as Greece. It could also partially be pure resentment: as James Angelos pointed out, Germany's current economic strength is based in part on its' neighbors' economic weakness. The country maintains a trade surplus -- i.e. exports more than it imports -- and its trade relationships with other eurozone countries are particularly important for that. The euro has reinforced Germany's advantage by putting German products and non-German products side by side, with the German products often winning out on quality and, because of the shared currency, price.

So the French, who have in the past few years been Germany's partners in leading the E.U., even when it came to austerity, certainly have plenty of fodder for their diatribes. But as the beleaguered Germans are noticing as well, the French aren't the only ones raising objections to the German-led Union. Greek protesters have been raving about the tyranny of German demands since last fall, and right-wing European politicians such as the Dutch Geert Wilders have made the E.U. -- and, implicitly, German leadership -- a top target recently. On Monday, UK Labour leader David Miliband suggested that Britain's and Germany's austerity measures had impeded European growth and placed Britain and Germany in particular on the "back foot" in facing the current economic climate.

This could all come to a head this month, and not just with the French presidential election. Though that is perhaps the highest-profile contest in which anti-E.U. and anti-Germany sentiment is on display, an article in German paper Die Welt notes that May will also see Greek parliamentary elections and local elections in Italy, as well as an Irish referendum on the E.U.'s new fiscal treaty. "This month could change the whole of Europe," the article concludes.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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