Germany isn’t the big bad boss of Europe

The idea that the country has an iron grip over southern European economies is too often used as a convenient excuse for others not getting their house in order

For once, politicians in France, demonstrators in Spain and newspaper columnists in Britain all agree: Europe has become a German colony. German dominance, based on economic overachievement, means the rest of the continent now lives under the yoke of Teutonic austerity politics. In this view, Syriza’s win in the Greek elections is less the product of decades of domestic political failure than a rebellious act of defiance against a sinister oppressor.

No wonder, then, that some commentators have tried to pre-emptively defend the new Greek government against the inevitable attack by Angela Merkel, the “most monstrous western European leader of this generation”. The Telegraph’s Charles Moore saw Syriza as the “logical, desperate response” to a situation that is “more like a colonial than a democratic one”, and even the Guardian’s Europe editor wrote that Syriza’s win “underlines public rejection of the policies prescribed mainly if not exclusively by Berlin in recent years”. It may sound more like Star Wars than political analysis, but the idea that Merkel is somehow controlling the leaders of the other 27 EU member states is now common currency.

Syriza’s historic win puts Greece on collision course with Europe  Read more The problem is that Germany is not a homogenous bloc. Yes, it is Europe’s biggest economy and its most populous country. But as any other European society, it consists of different groups with very different interests that do not always form one unified national interest. The German constitutional court, for example, is a very powerful domestic actor that has time and again forced the government to change its position on European politics. Lingering differences between east and west Germany, as well as the confessional divide between north and south, are also often standing in the way of a national consensus.

Germany also does not have a centrally planned economy, a fact that is often absent in any talk about German economic dominance. The big players like Siemens and Daimler are for the most part listed, multinational companies with shareholders from all over the world. Deutsche Bank, that poster child for the supposed iron German grip on southern Europe’s economies, is run by Anshu Jain, a man with British and Indian citizenship.

It makes you wonder how German rule over Europe is actually supposed to work. Do the other European leaders have a black, red and gold-coloured telephone on their desks with a direct line to Merkel’s office? Are they steered to a pro-austerity course via mind control? Because it certainly doesn’t happen through the EU institutions. It has been shown again and again that the European parliament is a truly transnational institution, with MEPs voting primarily along transnational party lines rather than along national lines. So the 96 German deputies (out of 751) frequently vote against each other, depending on which party they belong to.

A recent study by the German thinktank SWP found “an astonishing alignment of German national delegations with their political groups in the EP”, which led them – including members of Merkel’s own party – to even vote against the stance of the German government on issues such as nuclear energy.

In the council of ministers, where national interests naturally play a much bigger role, German delegates aren’t calling the shots either. According to Jonathan Golub, a political scientist at the University of Reading, large member states like “France, Germany and Italy do particularly badly” in influencing the bargaining process in the council, whereas small states like Luxembourg and Austria punch above their weight.

Even at the highest level of European politics, Germany has not always been very successful in pushing through its agenda. Merkel has suffered defeat in key decisions during the euro crisis: in 2012, for example, she was forced to agree to the European Central Bank directly buying government bonds of crisis-hit states. This time, the constitutional court threw its weight behind the German government and challenged the legality of these so-called outright monetary transactions (OMT). It referred the case to the European court of justice, but this seems unlikely to be successful after one of the advocates general at the ECJ already declared the measure compatible with EU law.

To criticise the German-bashing bandwagon is not about painting the country as a victim. It’s about whether you believe that lazy cliches distort rather than help us understand the real nature of the political crisis at the heart of Europe. Blaming an evil German empire can be a convenient excuse for democratically elected southern European governments who don’t want to take the flak for unpopular decisions at home. It also deflects attention from other austerity hardliners such as Finland or the Netherlands. It suggests that there is an easy solution to the Greek sovereign debt crisis, when the reality is far more complex.