BERLIN, Germany — This weekend President Barack Obama will be meeting in a Bavarian castle with six of his fellow leaders from Europe, Canada and Japan at the Group of Seven (G7) summit, a highly choreographed annual event that produces reams of communiques and press conferences but rarely any memorable results.
On Monday night, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hurriedly and secretly summoned to Berlin the heads of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union’s executive commission to try to resolve Europe’s most immediate crisis — the rolling deadlines over how and whether to bail Greece out of its massive debts.
The contrast between the two summits offers the starkest example yet of how leadership and authority on European issues is flowing from Washington to Berlin and into the hands of a German chancellor and government who insist with conviction that this role is being thrust upon them.
Far more by accident than design, Germany has become the reluctant leader and key decision maker on critical issues from Ukraine to the fate of the European Union’s embattled common currency, the euro. And in a far cry from the Cold War era when the United States and its presidents dominated much of Europe’s destiny, President Obama and his administration are distant players in many European issues now.
The rapid changes that have hit Europe in the last two decades are prominently on display and under constant discussion in Berlin, which over 144 years has gone from the capital of a newly united Germany to a bombed out flashpoint of Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union to a thriving and dynamic capital of a reunified Germany where hipsters, techies and night clubbers share turf amid new and renovated buildings with politicians, diplomats, think tankers and lobbyists.
Observing the first group is to realize how quickly a new generation has grown up with no memories of the Cold War that shaped a divided Germany and Berlin from the fall of the Nazi regime
in 1945 to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. To spend time in meetings and conferences with the second group is to be constantly reminded that the past decade has brought on bundles of issues, any one of which could preoccupy a government.
For years after the end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet Union, politicians and citizens alike in the now 28-member European Union talked of Europe as an island of peace and stability which much of the rest of the world wanted to emulate. Leadership was shared by a condominium of France and Germany, joined on many issues by Great Britain. But for the last five years, Britain has often turned its back to the EU and is now debating whether to leave it altogether. France has become mired in economic and political stasis.
That leaves Merkel as the last woman left standing facing an agenda that former German Ambassador to Washington Wolfgang Ischinger described as overwhelming. It can be divided into three baskets: the crisis of the Euro currency including a possible Greek exit in bankruptcy and slow to non-existent growth in most EU countries except Germany; a revanchist Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin is determined to overthrow the post-Cold War order, starting in Ukraine; and the crisis in the Mediterranean wrapping in refugees, terrorism, Middle East politics and the toxic domestic issue of immigration. Added now is the distraction of dealing with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s demands for new terms for keeping the UK inside the European Union.
As President Obama has realized in his sometimes prickly relationship with Merkel, she has ended up holding a lot of the cards and that her thumbs up or down can decide how issues
are resolved across Europe. And much of that power has come from both her innate caution and ability to hold the 28 EU nations together, whether dealing with the Greek debt issues or keeping sanctions on Russia since it seized Crimea, even as powerful German and other European businesses with stakes in that country kicked and screamed in protest.
And Merkel, a Russian speaker raised in the former East Germany has become the West’s principal interlocutor on Ukraine with Putin, a fluent German speaker from his KGB days in Dresden. Some German and European diplomats privately express concern that Merkel and her entourage have not more actively engaged the U.S. and EU in Ukraine diplomacy, but Merkel’s opposition to providing lethal weapons to the Kiev government helped give political cover to President Obama as he resisted domestic pressures on the arms issue.
But on one issue that has roiled relations between Germany and the U.S., President Obama is catching a break as he heads to the G7 meeting at a Bavarian schloss. Revelations that the German intelligence agency had worked with the NSA in snooping on Europeans had reignited the spying scandals in German media. But in the past week, the FIFA indictments have blown that story off front pages and newscasts in this soccer obsessed country, the winner of four and host of two World Cups.