Welcome to Berlin, Europe’s new capital

You’re not only looking at the de facto leader of Europe, which still most people don’t realize it for what it is, but you’re also looking at the next potential world leader. Critics can laugh at the notion, but when one is ahead of the curve, today’s jokes are tomorrow’s reality.

Berlin does not feel like an imperial city. The new government buildings – the chancellor’s office, the Bundestag and the foreign ministry – have all been designed with plenty of glass and natural light, to emphasise transparency and democracy. The finance ministry is, admittedly, housed in the old headquarters of the Luftwaffe. But most of the grandest architecture – Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg gate – is a legacy of the Prussian kings. Modern Berlin presents a more welcoming face, and has become a magnet for tourists and teenagers.

Yet while the German capital has deliberately eschewed the trappings of imperial power, the fact is that Berlin is increasingly the de facto capital of the EU. Of course the EU’s main institutions – the commission and the council – are still based in Brussels. But the key decisions are increasingly made in Berlin.

Will Greece have to leave the euro? Ultimately, it will be Germany’s call. Will politicians support further bailouts for southern Europe? The vital debates will take place in the Bundestag in Berlin – not in the European parliament. Who does the International Monetary Fund call about the euro crisis? The most important conversations take place with the German government and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt – not the European Commission.

This shift in power from Brussels to Berlin has been accelerated by the euro crisis. Naturally, the German chancellor Angela Merkel still has to go to summits in Brussels and strike deals. She was there only last week. But the euro crisis means that Ms Merkel is now incomparably the most important leader at the table.

This steady accretion of power to Germany is greeted with ambivalence in Berlin. For obvious historical reasons, postwar Germany has never sought a dominant role within Europe. After reunification, the goal was always said to be “a European Germany, not a German Europe”. That instinct to try to submerge German interests within a general European identity remains powerful. But exasperation with rule-breaking and fiscal incontinence elsewhere in Europe is making the Germans less shy about insisting on the need for a more “German” Europe. The price of German financial assistance is, increasingly, going to be the acceptance of rules and laws designed in Berlin.

That kind of power can lead to arrogance. In Berlin last week I heard occasional exasperated references to arrogant Spaniards, haughty Brits, delusional Frenchmen and corrupt Greeks. But the general tone of discussion is serious, patient and responsible. The Germans insist that they are completely committed to the euro and to the EU – and they are determined to make them work.

The problem – if there is a problem – is that life is too sweet in Berlin. Germany is prosperous and Berlin is a pleasant and fashionable city. The struggles of Greece or Spain seem a very long way away. That detachment from the rest of the eurozone – rather than any “will to power” – is why Berlin remains a peculiar capital for Europe.

Full article: Welcome to Berlin, Europe’s new capital (Financial Times)

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