Europe, facing abyss, embraces German might

BERLIN- December 2, 2011 Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski - whose nation lost millions of people in the Nazi invasion and occupation - shocked many this week when he made a dramatic appeal for greater German influence.

"You know full well that nobody else can do it," he told a largely German audience in Berlin. "I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity."

European leaders are panicked over unsustainable debt that could take down the entire global economy. From the streets to the halls of power, all eyes are trained on Germany - by far Europe's biggest economy - to lead the continent out of crisis.

"Germany should take on a leadership role because right now, economically, it is the one that can," said Nacho Criado, 31, on his way to his job laying fiber optic cable in downtown Madrid.

On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed forward with a Berlin-engineered action plan for containing Europe's crisis, calling for tougher rules to keep national budgets under control. She set the agenda for next week's critical European Union summit, saying it would grapple with a strategy to make sure countries follow the rules and write those changes into EU treaties.

At the same time she talked down any fears of German preeminence in Europe.

"Our guidelines for next week are clear, but it is important for me to say that they have nothing to do with fears or concerns that we are reading about or hear that Germany wants to dominate Europe or some such," she said. "That is absurd."

Increasingly, however, such fears appear to be getting more subdued.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, whose nation often lives in the shadow of its giant northern neighbor, dismissed out of hand any worries about renewed German dominance.

"I'm really happy," he said of Merkel's initiatives for saving Europe.

Some Europeans have also contemplated with horror what would happen if Germany got fed up with Europe's debt shambles and simply walked away.

"What is left of the euro if Germany says goodbye? A house of cards," Lennart Sacredeus, a lawmaker with the Christian Democrats in Sweden's governing coalition, wrote in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

Throughout the crisis, Merkel has worked closely with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the other heavyweight leader among the nations that share the euro. But Sarkozy, slumping in polls ahead of elections next year, has recently proven much more willing to bend to the chancellor's way of thinking.

In particular, he has embraced German ideas of countries ceding control of a chunk of their budgets to a central authority, even at the expense of some national sovereignty.

Finance Minister Francois Baroin this week talked about a "Franco-German political impulse" to save the euro. He noted Germany's economic successes compare favorably to France's debt difficulties, and concluded in a radio interview: "Germany is a model that interests us."

France's political opposition, meanwhile, has attacked Sarkozy for letting Merkel call the shots.

"For months, it's been Madame Merkel who decides and Nicolas Sarkozy who follows," Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande said this week.

But Europeans seem increasingly inclined to support Germany's leadership - or at least to go along with it.

"This government is not afraid of Germany," Italian political analyst Sergio Romano said of Rome's new regime of technocrats tasked with solving the nation's debt crisis.

"It hasn't said so explicitly, but would say the same thing Sikorski did: We are more afraid of a powerless Germany than a powerful Germany."

While former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi bristled at German interference, new Prime Minister Mario Monti has called the German culture of stability one of its "better exports."

"I have always been considered to be the most German among Italian economists, which I always received as a compliment, but which was rarely meant to be a compliment," Monti said at a recent event.

Likewise, incoming conservative Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is seen as much more open to Germany's leadership than outgoing socialist Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. And newspapers regularly praise the combined Merkel and Sarkozy approach to solving Europe's problems.

Rafael Gaisse, a Madrid attorney, said Merkel's guiding role is now one people accept as fact. But he added there is the perception that she too often reverts to negative leadership.

"She is preventing certain measures that could probably improve the situation, mainly with regard to the sovereign debt problem," Gaisse said. "Until now, the only thing she has done is say 'No, no, no' to everything."

Experts say that's because Berlin stands confident in its vision. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has acknowledged the dilemma, telling foreign correspondents this week in Berlin that the government feels like it's being pulled in opposite directions: criticized by some for not being aggressive enough, and by others for pushing its agenda too strongly.

"I feel like the firefighter," Schaeuble said, "who is being attacked by the arsonist."

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