IN JUNE 1900, the British commander of the international expeditionary force against the Chinese Boxers, Admiral Seymour, found himself in a bit of a fix. He exhorted the Kaiser's contingent to come to his aid with the immortal words "The Germans to the front", words that went around the world. Many Germans claimed they had rescued the day. On the contrary, British and French spin doctors replied, the Germans had been cowering in the rear for so long that Seymour had had to shame them into doing their duty.
One is reminded of these exchanges today as Europeans dispute whether Berlin should take the lead in the eurozone.
For every French socialist party motion condemning Chancellor Angela Merkel for dominating the Continent on behalf of "German savers and German trade surpluses", there is a Radek Sikorski, the Polish defence secretary, who calls upon Germany to stop skulking at the back and seize the initiative before the European project collapses completely.
Anti-German sentiment is growing exponentially in southern Europe, especially Greece and Spain, whose peoples are rebelling against the austerity regime supported by Germany. More recently, Germanphobia resurfaced in France. In Paris, the socialist senator Marie-Noelle Lienemann invokes the spirit of the Second World War Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle against German suggestions that France should balance its books. Even where it is not so explicit, much of the rhetoric against a "German Europe" draws on memories of Hitler's attempts to control the entire continent 70 years ago.
This time, however, it is different. Far from wishing to dominate Europe, the German elite see the European project as both the apotheosis and the transcendence of their national aspirations. Famously, Chancellor Kohl regarded German unification as a prelude to a much larger European unification. The Basic Law, the German constitution, is bookended by a preamble that announces the intent to "serve world peace" as "an equal member of a united Europe", and the final paragraph -- revised after unification -- which states that it will be superseded by a new constitution freely agreed to by the German people. In other words, the potential surrender of sovereignty to a democratic single European state is written into the very core of the German political DNA.
Where the Germans can be faulted is in their lack of boldness in pushing forward the political unification of Europe on a democratic basis. Too much in hock to the traditions of the Holy Roman Empire and the EU, they see political union as a process. They still fail to grasp the historical truth that successful unions such as Britain's union of England with Scotland and Ireland and America's union of states have been events. Berlin's current strategy of postponing joint debt liability and political union until convergence criteria have been achieved will crush the southern and western periphery economically long before they reach the finishing line.
Eurozone political union will happen only if the pooling of debt, and a subsequent "debt-ceiling", is accompanied by the simultaneous establishment of a common parliament which is responsible for it. …