BRUSSELS (Reuters) - In Brussels, Germans have shrugged off their postwar reserve and make no apology for shaping Europe’s future, taking key posts in EU institutions and pushing Berlin’s trade interests with vigor.
As Angela Merkel forms a new coalition government after a third successive election triumph, the conservative chancellor can build on efforts, in place since her first term in 2005, that have increased not just the number of Germans in senior jobs in Brussels but the extent to which they answer to Berlin.
And where that fails to ensure EU policy acceptable to the bloc’s biggest economy, Merkel has shown she is prepared to lay down the law in person - as when she demanded an EU retreat this summer from a looming trade war with China that would have hurt the exports of Germany’s big car makers and engineering firms.
Its 27 partners can hardly deny that a state which is home to one EU citizen in six and produces a fifth of the bloc’s output must have a big say. Berlin’s new assertiveness, aided by a widening economic gap it has opened up over struggling allies, is, however, provoking grumbles - though there is little sign yet of a serious challenge to weaken Merkel’s grip in Brussels.
For Germans like Herbert Reul, who leads the chancellor’s Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, that influence is a natural development of history for a nation that long put its wealth at the service of a French-accented EU in return for the political rehabilitation which that brought after Hitler.
“We’re done with that,” Reul said of the days of German reserve in Brussels, which endured through the long leadership of Helmut Kohl that saw the forging in the 1990s of the euro and of a bigger Germany that absorbed the formerly communist east.
“A state that wasn’t a state, always a bit under the authority of the Allies, ... is very cautious,” Reul added. “To take responsibility means that you shouldn’t just be sitting in the corner and apologizing - that’s not enough.”
Taking responsibility has meant, among other things, taking some of the most powerful, if not always the most visible, jobs in Brussels. The likes of Uwe Corsepius, Johannes Laitenberger and Klaus Welle are hardly household names. But alongside a few dozen other senior Germans, they hold great sway over EU policy.
Once Merkel’s Europe adviser, Corsepius, 53, is secretary-general of the European Council. Some of his 3,000 staff see him as the man who cut their access to Facebook and travel websites to make them work harder. But his real power is to steer the agendas and legal advice that shape meetings of EU governments.
Laitenberger, 49, is chief-of-staff to Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, which oversees trade and other EU polices. And Welle, also 49, secretary-general of the elected European Parliament, is known by some as the “prince of darkness” for the influence he wields over the legislature.
Welle also seeks closer coordination among Germans in the EU capital, in part through the Genval Circle - a discreet forum for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Brussels.
“Germans are behaving more normally in relation to Brussels,” said Hans-Gert Poettering, who was European Parliament speaker until 2009. He now chairs the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think-tank associated with the CDU and in whose elegant Brussels townhouse office the Genval Circle often meets.
“This does not mean that this wartime chapter in our history is closed,” Poettering said in defense of Berlin’s new approach. “But history should not restrict our freedom to act.”
Coordination among Germans in Brussels and between them and Berlin is no accident. Kohl used to complain that fellow Germans tended to abandon their national identity once over the border.
Now, said CDU lawmaker Reul: “If we speak with one voice, then we have power.” He himself meets fellow Christian Democrat leaders in Berlin, including Merkel herself, every other Monday.
“The German group seeks to represent industrial political interests. We have a lot of industry to defend,” said Reul, who represents a manufacturing region on the lower Rhine.
Simon Hix, professor of European politics at the London School of Economics, said: “You feel the shadow of the Berlin government in the parliament ... It’s rare that anything happens ... that’s against the interests of German industry.”
It was under Merkel’s centre-left SPD predecessor Gerhard Schroeder that a new generation of German leaders, too young to remember Nazism, began a push for a stronger voice in Brussels.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, SPD foreign minister in Merkel’s first coalition, set up a program to train Germans to win EU posts. The probable new left-right coalition in Berlin may further consolidate a united German approach in EU affairs.
“The further improvement of Germany’s personnel presence in European institutions is very important for the government,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. “The aim is that Germany, as the biggest EU member state, is represented in an appropriate way at all levels of EU institutions.”
Raw numbers of EU official posts do not tell the whole story. By Berlin’s calculations about 10 percent of senior civil servants in the EU Commission and a similar proportion of senior diplomats in the EU’s foreign policy directorate are German. Germans make up 16 percent of the bloc’s 507-million population.
Like many multilateral organizations, smaller states - three EU members have fewer than a million people - tend to be overrepresented. And the near doubling in membership in the past decade, mainly with smaller countries in the east and south, has diluted the share of total EU jobs available to founder members.
But focus on the qualitatively influential posts coveted by the big powers, including France, Britain and Italy, and German influence is clearer. EU and German officials reckon it is also clearly growing. And Berlin diplomats make no secret they aim to take advantage of a coming wave of top-level retirements.
An internal Commission report, seen by Reuters, shows there are already 45 Germans in the senior jobs in that institution - at departmental director level or above - more than France and well exceeding Italy or Britain, who each have fewer than 30.
Germany has focused on areas where the Commission has most power such as economic affairs, antitrust enforcement and other regulatory departments. Trade is also important. The EU ambassador to China, Markus Ederer, is a German.
Government planners, who chart the progress of their brightest talent, have also identified “Germany-friendly” non-nationals who are worth backing for jobs - supporting candidates who, for example, have studied in German universities.
The Dutch, for example, are seen as in step with German economics. The Netherlands’ Jeroen Dijsselbloem chairs the euro group of finance ministers, which sets policy for the single currency managed by the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank.
French officials who once saw the EU as largely their own project, say the handing of EU votes and jobs to Germany’s poor eastern neighbors after the Cold War has shifted the balance toward Berlin, whose economic success makes it a more tempting ally than Paris in the horse-trading that makes much EU policy.
A dispute over a proposed tightening of EU rules on vehicle pollutant emissions, which ended this month in a delay that suited German luxury car makers, illustrated Berlin’s clout.
In a long campaign to build alliances, Merkel had personally called, among others, the Irish and Portuguese leaders to remind them Germany was helping their debt-crushed economies, according to senior officials. Merkel’s office declined to comment.
She intervened, too, in this year’s trade row with China over solar panels, on which Germany at first lacked friends.
In late May, as the European Commission prepared to impose sanctions on Beijing for its alleged dumping of cheap solar panels in EU markets, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang flew to Berlin to warn of a trade war that would hurt the German car industry.
Telling the German public she would do all she could to stop a trade war that would damage German exports, she picked up the phone to Commission President Barroso in Brussels.
Despite a denial from Barroso’s office, a senior EU official confirmed to Reuters that Merkel did call. Several officials said that was then followed by a call from Barroso, a former prime minister of Portugal, to EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht. The Belgian did not want to change course against China.
Yet the message was clear. Germany, bankroller of euro zone bailouts and biggest net contributor to the EU budget, would not risk wrecking ties with a country that buys $50 billion a year of machinery, from Porsches to tanks and much other equipment.
Europe stepped back from the De Gucht plans and the dispute was resolved by setting a minimum price on Chinese solar panels.
“WE ARE THE BEST”
If Germans are pleased, among neighbors still wary after a century of viewing Berlin as a menace there is irritation at a tendency to talk down to those less economically successful.
“You have this German view that if everyone was German and as practical as the Germans, then everything would work better,” commented one senior French official in a private conversation.
Some say that could backfire, creating resistance that might generate stalemate in EU policy-making. That could undermine the effectiveness of a bloc which already faces the threat of Britain’s 64 million people voting to quit the Union.
“Germany says ‘We are doing best, so we are the best’,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a veteran of politics in both Germany and France and co-chair of the Greens group in the EU parliament.
“This can have negative repercussions. By taking this approach, Germany is putting the brakes on Europe.”
For Cohn-Bendit, born in France after his Jewish parents fled Nazi Germany, Berlin’s focus on its export-driven economy was blunting a broader EU ambition for wide global influence.
“The German approach is that they don’t want to be bothered with the world,” he said. “National economic interests is the limit of their thinking. It wants to have economic leadership and, in foreign policy, to be like Luxembourg.”
The diffuse structure of the European Union does give the 27 other states scope to challenge Germany’s economic strategy.
But that does not convince European Parliament member Nigel Farage. His UK Independence Party wants Britain, still outside the euro zone, to completely pull out of a European Union in which Farage sees economics ensuring Berlin will call the shots.
“Whether Britain is in or out,” he said, “Economic policy-making in the euro zone is going to be dominated by Germany.”
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by Alastair Macdonald