Comments from insiders suggest that Tsipras was exposed to “mental waterboarding” and “crucified”. Tsipras was made to cave in. He was made to agree to demands that he – and 60% of the Greek electorate – had regarded as unacceptable only a few days earlier. If anything is power, this is.
But Germany is now perceived to have won by humiliating its opponent. There have been calls to boycott the country’s goods, and Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman agreed with the take of #ThisIsACoup. Talk of a “Fourth Reich” is back as well in full force. Germany has come out as the winner in only the most basic sense.
This is at best a pyrrhic victory. At worst, it is a diplomatic disaster – and it is not even certain yet that the deal will have public support in Germany. The German electorate’s preference would probably have been not to do a deal, although there now seems to be a small majority in favour of what has been achieved.
A failure of diplomacy
Of course, the crisis and negotiations are far more complex to be attributed to Merkel and the German government alone. But it is worth asking what her leadership has achieved – and what it hasn’t. German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, proposed, at the 11th hour on Saturday, the possibility of Greece temporarily leaving the euro. Whether or not this was a serious proposal or merely a negotiating tactic, it was a disastrous move in terms of public diplomacy.
It has exposed Schäuble, and thus Germany, as chief scapegoat in the European public realm. That may work to rally the troops in domestic politics, but it does not play out so well from a foreign policy perspective.
The French president, François Hollande, and his Italian colleague Matteo Renzi will not have been amused: they had just made it clear that they wanted to keep Greece in the euro. As a result, Hollande has emerged as the mediator, within Europe and across the Atlantic.
Germany, meanwhile, has once again become the embodiment of what is wrong with Europe; it is seen as a callous operator that shows little interest in the suffering of the Greek population. These perceptions will matter in the coming months and years as the European Union grapples with the political fallout from this crisis.
But the German government’s tactics in Brussels last weekend gave away even more. Merkel and Schäuble’s open display of power may have cost Germany the key foundation on which that power was built: trust – and the belief that it was Germany that would come to Europe’s rescue and heal the wounds of division.
Ultimately, German domestic politics triumphed over German foreign policy. That is not a good outcome. Good leadership would have meant balancing the two. It would have also meant communicating Germany’s aims and interests effectively.
To be sure, the politics behind these negotiations are the results of broader shifts in the landscape of European politics since 1989/90. We are witnessing the unravelling of the late 20th-century European order. In that order, the balance between national sovereignty and European bureaucracy was hidden behind lofty values.
“Europe” was attractive then as a project of civilisation and anti-Communist social and political liberalism, and as a way to avoid war. This is why Greece applied to join the European project in 1975 – and this is why it was admitted in 1981. But this is also why any problems were overlooked along the way. The Cold War froze this consensus. But when the Cold War was over and when the memory of the World War II was beginning to fade away, only a few academics and commentators thought about what would happen to the European project and the values on which it was built.
The problem with Merkel
This is where another problem with Merkel’s leadership style comes in: she delays decisions in order to build pressure on the opponent. She works within structures rather than using a crisis as opportunity for positive change.
None of the issues that emerged during the recent incarnation of the Greek crisis was new: the threat of populism, the lack of capacity of the Greek state, the serious wounds that austerity has wrought on Greek society. The lack of social solidarity between EU members was already in evidence before the crisis.
Merkel and her government are not the only ones to have sidestepped these issues. The failure of German foreign policy is a symptom of this larger problem with the European Union. But Merkel and her government do not even appear to have tried to tackle the underlying issues.
By the time she had a last chance this weekend, it might have been already too late. But Merkel’s leadership style and the fallout of the crisis have made a serious problem even worse. The Greek crisis is a textbook example of how not to handle public diplomacy. Germany has emerged as the scapegoat, and the European Union (not just the eurozone) has been left exposed to national sentiment and populist politicking. And amid all this, the Greek people are still hurting..
Holger Nehring is a historian of post-1945 Western Europe, with special interests in the history of social movements, protests and political activism in Britain and West Germany, the history of violence and peace, the history of the Cold War, and environmental history. He received his training in contemporary history, political science, and philosophy at Tübingen University (Germany), the London School of Economics, and (as a Rhodes scholar) at University College, Oxford. Before joining the Stirling History Department in September 2013, he was based at St. Peter's College, Oxford, as a junior research fellow and, from March 2006 to August 2013, in various positions at the University of Sheffield.