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Martin Schrader (kjb)October 24, 2008

The German government has failed in dealing with the current finance crisis, says former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Indeed, some in Europe are worried that Berlin is taking its own path.

German flag waves in front of the Reichstag in Berlin
Some in Europe have accused Germany of just looking out for No. 1Image: dpa

Since the German government rejected an EU aid fund in response to the finance crisis, concerns have arisen in some European countries that Germany will go it alone once again.

The liberal Finnish daily Hufvudstadsbladet wrote on Thursday, Oct. 23, "The finance crisis promotes a particular kind of nationalistic or even patriotic thinking."

The Dutch paper Volkskrant agreed, but said it didn't want to lump all Europeans together. Paris and London were working together to find a solution at the EU level, wrote the paper; it was just Germany which was behaving passively in the crisis.

Post-war Germany earned reliable reputation

Both Volkskrant and the International Herald Tribune (IHT) quoted former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who had warned that Germany should never again be one thing: incalculable.

The German national soccer team
Should Berlin take some tips from its national Eleven?Image: AP

But, according to some, that's exactly what it's becoming. John Vinocur wrote in the IHT that over the last several decades post-war Germany had won trust in its politics based on three main pillars: Its involvement in the EU, its established position in western alliances, and its competence and credibility had all made Germany calculable.

"At decisive moments, these qualities offered vast reassurance to its friends," Vinocur wrote. "Now, in a period of severe economic unrest, the Germany of autumn 2008 resembles its former self less and less."

In a time of serious crisis, the quality of Germany's government and its leadership becomes apparent, commented Fischer in a column for the online edition of Die Zeit.

"In the current finance crisis, the government's two main actors -- Angela Merkel and her finance minister -- didn't withstand the test," he wrote.

Playing the national card

Germany plays an important role for Europe in this global finance crisis because it is by far the largest and most important economy in the EU, added the former Greens figurehead. That's why the other European countries looked to Berlin -- "and were bitterly disappointed."

Joschka Fischer
Joschka FischerImage: AP

It's understandable that Germany didn't want a European crisis fund, continued Fischer, but the government should have made other suggestions for a common policy in Europe.

In the end, Germany "played the national card instead of taking care of Europe," he criticized, adding that the result was not only anger and disgust from Paris and London but also concern and mistrust.

Zigzag course not surprising

However, political scientist Jan Techau said he doesn't think these concerns are appropriate. Techau is project manager at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. He said the impression that Germany is taking its own path could only have flared up for a short time -- particularly around Oct. 5, when Chancellor Merkel told the German public in a speech that their money was secure.

But just a few days later, Germany became a team player once again when it worked out a crisis plan with other EU members at the emergency summit in Paris, said Techau.

Heads of European states at a finance summt in Paris on Oct. 12, 2008
Germany has joined in on EU finance talks, like earlier this month in ParisImage: AP

Germany has taken a "zigzag course, which was also taken by other countries in this crisis, where no one really knew what the right plan was," he added, naming Britain's Gordon Brown as an example.

Although the prime minister was vehemently opposed to the nationalization of banks at first, that was "the same Gordon Brown who proposed and did just than when London's financial center was faltering." He did the same with tighter regulations for the financial market, commented Techau.

Distraction from the real issue

But no one in Europe, or in the US, was prepared for this kind of rapidly developing finance crisis.

"It's not a glorious chapter in history -- not just for Germany, but for all the European nations," said Techau, adding that it's understandable that opinions changed quickly when the situation worsened.

Bringing Helmut Schmidt's big historical lesson into play is going too far, according to Techau. That kind of historical pathos is not just inappropriate, but distracts from the important economic debate at hand, he said.