We are now well into the third version of the German European empire. Startling claim? Only if you haven’t studied history.
German Empire, Mark 1 (if you exclude the medieval “Holy Roman” version): the strikingly stupid German Kaiser, sitting astride a belligerent Prussian- dominated army and a burgeoning industrial economy, jealous of the British and French empires, invades France and starts the disastrous First World War. Millions killed, but Germany is put back into its box after four harrowing years.
German Empire, Mark 2: Hitler, bent on revenge and a desire to eliminate the despised Soviets and the Jews, momentarily dominates the whole of Europe to the gates of Moscow. Even more millions killed, but Germany is put back into its box after six years harrowing warfare, with the help of the USA, which then becomes the very Great Power that Hitler wanted Germany to be. .
German Empire, Mark 3: this is a more benign edition of empire. Put on its feet after 1945 with the benefit of the Marshall Plan, Germany is restored as an industrial power, and, with France as major partner, creates the EU (after some preliminaries like the Iron and Steel Community etc). As the EU grew in number of members so the principle economic powerhouse of the EU, Germany, became the most powerful single member.
A key moment was the introduction of the Euro, the first step to total union. This has allowed Germany to lend to weaker EU members, like Greece, who have used their loans to buy more and more German goods, getting more indebted and unstable, a sort of not-very-virtuous circle. It has been in the interests of Germany to encourage expansion of the EU and movement of people to man the factories. But what has suited Germany, now with an economic empire, has not always suited other member countries.
From a British point of view the Germans, backed by the French, are bossy, bureaucratic and intolerant of compromise. The EU has protected the peace and has done great things for trade, health safety at work, fairness in business, equal rights, monopolies etc. – overall a good record. But Germany has not listened to the protests about migration and unification and is viewed as having foisted all the things they want onto unwilling satellites (especially, and allegedly, the UK).
The British, on the other hand, have sniffed at the Germans and the French bureaucratics and said “no thank you” – which is stupid. I remember someone saying, way back when the UK joined the EU, “You have to have Britain as a counterweight to Germany, along with experienced and pragmatic civil servants who can inject simple, common sense into the diktats from Brussels”.
At first this was the case – there were hundreds of high-level, experienced British civil servants in Brussels. Gradually they retired or withdrew, and the European parliament became splintered . While this was happening some rah-rah resurrections from the 19th Century Indian Raj, on the right wing, backward- looking wing of the Conservative party, manoeuvred the country into the dire EU-hostile state it is now in.
Britain should be the counter-weight, the down-to-earth organiser, the country with the Common Sense, stopping the expansive ambitions of Germany . But no, the Continentals are still regarded by some as pesky foreigners, to be looked at with suspicion and patronised. Britain has been hands-off. From the other side the view of Britain from Berlin and Paris probably cannot be put into print.
Some think the EU will collapse anyway and that it is better to leave now rather than suffer a worse fate in the final calamity. I don’t share this prognosis. Bigness is the world order of the day. Instead of grumbling on the sidelines the British should be in there, making it work, ensuring stability, no more wars. In two words: “Epicurean moderation”. We should have had our very best people in Brussels, trying to moderate the actions of Germany, supported the smaller countries, and avoided the drift towards the extreme Right in Eastern Europe. A huge opportunity, jettisoned in favour of being a small, alone island, now with few friends. Historians will have a field day. And how long will German empire Mark 3 last? Not long if China and Russia have their way. We are better together than apart, and will learn that lesson the hard way.
Epicurus believed that a pleasant life, with minimal politics, and plenty of friends, and yes, moderation were the secrets of life. Were he alive today he wouldn’t believe the stupidity (and irresponsibility of the some of) the British.