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The awkward leader

30 January 2012 By Pierre Briançon

It wasn’t the most subtle idea ever developed by German diplomats. The suggestion that a special euro zone commissioner might take control of Greece’s budget was met in Athens with predictable outrage. Athens has failed to implement its bailout programme, and hasn’t done anything to combat the scourge of tax fraud. Europeans everywhere are tiring of pouring into Greece the money its own citizens are sending abroad. But the Kommissar proposal’s insensitivity is a reminder that the new lone German leadership of the euro zone will need some adjusting.

Angela Merkel has won. The German chancellor has forced her disciplinarian views about austerity on all her partners. France’s economic problems – of which the recent ratings downgrade is but a symptom – keep it from playing its traditional role of EU co-leader. On the contrary, during a long TV interview on Sunday, Nicolas Sarkozy repeatedly used the German economy’s strength as an inspiration for reforms in France.

Over the weekend the news also came from Berlin that Merkel would campaign for the re-election of her friend Nicolas. The French president might consider that a mixed blessing, considering the chancellor’s deep unpopularity in France. In the exercise of its new European authority, Germany is still at the awkward stage.

In time Berlin will have to admit that leading doesn’t mean imposing the German model on everyone else. Monday’s euro zone summit is expected to agree on a permanent rescue fund and a fiscal compact among its members, but it might also pay at least lip service to the need for growth-enhancing policies and reforms.

That would be a first sign that the euro zone’s new undisputed power is learning that with its role come responsibilities. Then Berlin will also have to come to terms with the unpleasant fact that a massive current account surplus is not only a sign of economic strength, but also a problem. Germany’s own model also needs reforms if the euro zone is to prosper in the long term.


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