German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steering Europe through the debt crisis for the last four years, and she's lost many friends doing so. But who else could have done it?
"If the euro fails, Europe fails. We can't let that happen," Angela Merkel said in October 2011. She has repeated it so often since then that it has become a leitmotif of her European crisis policy.
The chancellor was initially reluctant to offer financial aid to countries in crisis, but then she helped construct the European Union's rescue fund and debt relief plans - ultimately agreeing to the European Central Bank's bond-buying program. "That was new territory for us," the chancellor admitted later.
"The EU today is not the EU of five years ago. A great deal has been done because the crisis is so deep and fundamental," said Yanis Emmanouilidis, economist at the Brussels-based European Policy Center. "In these three, four, five years the German government and the chancellor have played a key role."
Slow to lead
Emmanouilidis believes Merkel did not seek to be the leader, but as the head of the biggest economic power on the continent, rejecting it was not an option.
"I don't think she wanted it, but once the situation was there she stepped into the role. Many partners asked that she, that Germany, take the lead," he said.
Describing Germany as "Europe's reluctant hegemon," British business magazine "The Economist" recently called on the government to push through even more reforms in the EU, in addition to the fiscal pact, banking union and the debt ceiling.
EU members mapping the course
The euro crisis and its German management have shifted the balance of power in Brussels. The once powerful EU Commission, which proposed laws and monitored developments, has lost ground because it was too slow and inflexible - at least according to the German government. The European Parliament has little influence because the money needed to rescue ailing banks comes mainly from the national budgets of member states. In short, the Council of Ministers, where national governments are represented, is now running the show.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague summed it up during a debate at the Open Europe think tank in London: "Among all the European institutions, the Council, which answers to national parliaments, has taken over the leadership because it's about decisions that cost money. But people quite naturally look to their national parliaments as the legitimate decision-makers."
Britain's euroskeptic government and the Netherlands are now demanding extensive reforms. The Netherlands recently published a report outlining ways to reduce the EU's alleged overstepping of its authority and desire to regulate everything in excessive detail.
After Sunday's general election (22.09.2013), the German government will have to come to terms with these growing trends across Europe. Should she remain in office, Merkel is said to be planning another course correction in the euro crisis. Media reports suggest she is planning to divest Brussels of power and jurisdictions.
German business daily "Handelsblatt" has reported that Merkel intends to seek more direct agreements between member states rather than through Brussels, and during her election campaign the chancellor said she saw "no need to give more authority to Brussels." But only a few months ago, at the height of the euro crisis, her motto was "more Europe" - in other words, a deeper economic and monetary union.
Radical reforms after election?
Lord Rodney Leach of Fairford, the critical director of the Open Europe think tank, is calling for a radical trimming of the EU in the wake of the crisis. Opinion polls, particularly in Germany, indicate that people are losing confidence in the EU.
The chancellor will have to respond to these trends. Any head of the German government must respond to this, says Lord Leach. "Logic requires that Berlin support radical reforms because that is what the voters support. That is what many voters in Europe support. It fits northern European instincts," he said.
Udo Bullmann, on the other hand, has his doubts about whether Merkel has the strength to pursue reforms, whatever direction they take. The Social Democratic member of the European Parliament told DW that Merkel had "spread the art of sitting things out all across Europe, bringing the eurozone to the brink of collapse month after month. That has to change."
No major changes
But according to Open Europe, nothing major will change in Germany's European policies after the September 22 election, even if Merkel is no longer chancellor.
The equation is not "Merkel fails, the euro fails, Europe fails." A left-wing government in Berlin would perhaps be a bit friendlier toward crisis countries, but taxpayer's and voter's money would be kept together.
The Social Democrats share Merkel's instinct to keep budget deficits low, says Nina Schick of Open Europe. After all, with the exception of the Left party, the fundamentals of the euro rescue scheme were supported by all of Germany's political parties.