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9/11: still Europe’s most momentous day

Twenty five years ago next Sunday evening, the 9th of November, will mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. On that day the old East German government had declared an open border with West Germany. The wall suddenly became only a physical obstruction to be breached rather than what had previously been a political and military geopolitical fault line of great significance, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.

The French writer François Mauriac observed with much irony before 1989: “I love Germany so much that I am glad there are two of them.” Mauriac’s sentiments were shared by many of Europe’s politician’s at the time. Margaret Thatcher, for one, was a passionate opponent of German reunification before it came about. She was never truly reconciled to the reality of a single German state.

The consequences of the East German government’s truly momentous decision still reverberate across the continent. The break-up of the Soviet Union, EU enlargement, the expansion of NATO and the complex shifting inter-relationships between the countries of Europe and beyond have many of their roots in the symbolic end of the ‘Iron Curtain’.

There has been much recent discussion of the Russia/Ukraine conflict being about where European liberal democracy ends and Putin/Russian authoritarianism begins. Real or quasi-military conflicts between states always catch the headlines and there is no doubt that Putin wishes to aggrandise Russia’s global influence. The roots of the current Ukrainian ‘crisis’ can be traced back to Europe’s 9/11 and EU enlargement policy.

The shrinkage of Russia’s sphere of influence was a direct consequence of the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The outcome of the resultant chaos that allowed previous client states to escape the clutches of Moscow is one of the key drivers in Putin’s obsession with re-establishing Russia as a decisive player in global and, especially, European politics.

The chaos also led to the enlargement of the European Union from fifteen to twenty five, then twenty seven and now twenty eight member states. Ten of the new member states had previously been in Russia’s sphere of influence for many. many years. Most of the new states also became members of NATO, much to Moscow’s chagrin.

However, what is currently little discussed (in detail) is the final emergence of Germany as the key player on the continent as a whole. All of Germany’s present foreign policy positions can be traced back to 9/11. What had been a theoretical geo-strategic debate about German borders back in 1989, suddenly became a contemporaneous problem that had to be settled politically. Even the birth of the Euro and it’s troubles in its early days had similarities with the birth pains of monetary union between the old East and West Germany.

But Germany’s emergence as the dominant power in the EU seems to be a subject that can’t be discussed fully in depth these days because of a fear of sinking into historical parallels that most politicians in Europe have agreed should remain in the past. This is not just confined to foreign ministries in Paris, Rome, London, Warsaw etc.: the same applies in Berlin as well. It seems acceptable to trace German contemporary history back to post-1945 or even to debate the fiscal consequences of German hyper-inflation in the 1920’s, yet references to the elephant in the room of German foreign policy from 1933 to 1945 remain verboten.

Yet, these historical parallels live on in people’s minds: having heavily influenced the thinking of the key players in 1989. Back then, the major players were Gorbachev, Mitterrand, George W. H. Bush, Thatcher and Kohl. Four were heads of states with permanent seats at the UN Security council with Kohl being seen as the junior partner.

All of the key players then had significant memories of the historical fallout from the second world war. The challenge in the post 9/11 days was to come up with a solution that took account of German unity but didn’t threaten the post-war consensus between Europe’s major players.

The on-going inter-relationships between Germany, France, Italy, the UK and many others in the European Union as well as with Russia have fundamentally changed since then. When one now talks of Merkel, Cameron, Hollande, Renzi etc., it swiftly becomes quite apparent which individual has the most influence. It is also obvious that Putin is no ‘pliant’ Yeltsin.

From a UK perspective, David Cameron has manoeuvered himself into a position whereby his (and his party’s) political future will depend on how far Germany is willing to indulge him as he fights for his political future. In effect, Cameron has allowed (for now) the UK to become a supplicant at the court of Angela Merkel.

In EU terms, Cameron’s conservative party is dependent on the political largesse Berlin decides to throw the UK’s way. France, Italy, Poland and Spain etc. seem to have entered into similar unbalanced relationships for various different reasons.

Germany today is geographically, economically and fiscally at the heart of European politics whether Berlin likes it or not. In terms of foreign policy it has been reluctant to assume leadership roles if it can be avoided, preferring ‘soft power realities on the ground’ to actual diplomatic interventions. However, monetary union has been the midwife of Germany’s leading role in the European Union.

For instance, in November 2013, the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, giving a speech in Berlin, said “ I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

Most of the states of Northern Europe are enthusiastic converts to monetary union, whilst Southern and Eastern union accept the realities of membership of the Euro despite the short to medium-term political and economic consequences. It is an inescapable fact that monetary policy in most of the EU is now wholly dependent on what Berlin decides is the right course.

Of all the EU member states, political affairs with Germany are acknowledged by Putin (and most of the Russian political establishment) as the key relationship on the continent. What started as Willy Brandt’s ostpolitik has become a fully-fledged acknowledgement of geographic, demographic, political and economic realities.

The outcome of Europe’s 9/11 still has to play out, economic policy, energy policy, fiscal policy etc. remains in a state of flux across the continent. It is highly doubtful that any significant change in any of these policy fields will take place without Berlin’s imprimatur.

In 1989, Chancellor Kohl was very much a junior partner in relation to the UK and France. today. Today, Chancellor Merkel is clearly very much now a ‘first amongst equals’.


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