ATHENS — Welcome to the European Disunion.
Last-ditch talks over a Greek rescue in Brussels descended Sunday into a diplomatic slugfest, deeply dividing nations in the European Union over a big new bailout for a country on the brink. Yet even as European leaders moved toward a tough deal for Greece, the increasingly nasty rift was exposing the deeper divisions within Europe.
Nowhere was that more clear than at the heart of European power — the key partnership between Germany and France that secured peace and prosperity on the continent in the decades after World War II. After a long marriage built less on love than pragmatism and a common goal of European unity, Berlin and Paris have now clearly drifted apart.
Their competing visions for the future of Europe went on public display over the weekend of marathon talks. During its 5
For France and its allies, Greece may have strayed from a fiscally righteous path. But now was the time, they argued, to forgive its transgressions to keep the euro zone whole.
“This isn’t just about Greece, this is about Europe,” French President François Hollande told reporters in Brussels on Sunday.
Yet that view bumped up hard against those held by a bloc of nations led by Germany, the region’s economic anchor, which sees the common currency as also being about something else. About the obligations of membership. About running low budget deficits. About adhering to conservative fiscal policy and making sure that other members of the club don’t need to clean up your mess.
The damage being done to the spirit of European unity could have far-reaching implications beyond this weekend, damaging unity on other fronts, from sanctions against Russia to a free-trade deal with the United States.
But it also exposed the way in which the euro has rocked the balance of power in Europe, raising the ghosts of the past. For France in particular, the common currency was seen partly as an opportunity to limit Berlin’s power after German reunification, inexorably tying Germany’s fate — and economic might — to the rest of the continent. But as the nations of the euro zone now realize, rather than blunt German power, the euro union has only enhanced it.
As the primary anchor of the euro, without German economic might, the union — particularly in times of crisis, like now — would be doomed. Like it or not, it has put Berlin in the driver’s seat.
Germany appeared to flex its muscles this weekend, pushing for demeaning new conditions for Greece. One divisive German proposal insisted that Athens put up $55 billion worth of assets to be sold off to pay back debt. Hollande also seemed to take personal umbrage at a controversial German clause to temporarily kick Greece out of the euro if a deal couldn’t be reached.
It remained unclear early Monday whether either measure would end up as part of a final deal.
“There is Greece in the euro zone or Greece not in the euro zone,” Holland told reporters on Sunday. “But in that case it’s Europe that retreats and no longer progresses, and I don’t want that.”
The stark divisions in Brussels marked a sharp departure from two weeks ago, when other European leaders mostly backed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her hard-line position ahead of a Greek referendum on austerity. Then, European leaders were collectively warning the Greeks that a “no” vote would also mean a rejection of the euro. But then Greeks stunned European capitals by saying no anyway.
For some leaders, it called their bluff — and, with Greece hurtling toward a euro exit, their tone turned immediately kinder. But Germany, it seems, was never really bluffing in the first place.
Yet the Germans have routinely compromised in past bailout talks, and rather than impose its harshest proposals, Berlin may simply be trying to send a message. But it wasn’t just France and Greece smarting at German rigidity this weekend. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had publicly sided with Merkel shortly before the Greek referendum. But now, he seems to have changed his mind.
“Italy does not want Greece to exit the euro, and to Germany I say: Enough is enough,” he told the Italian daily Il Messaggero. He added, “Humiliating a European partner after Greece has given up on just about everything is unthinkable.”
Yet the Germans also have their own reasons for feeling betrayed in the talks. During the run-up to this weekend’s showdown, the French sought to quietly aid Athens, providing it with technical assistance to draft its bailout pitch, according to a Greek official familiar with the arrangement.
In part, the move appeared to be an effort by Hollande to show the left wing of his Socialist Party that he had not surrendered his ideals to the center-right vision of Merkel.
But it also offered a chance for Paris to appear to be finally checking German influence.
The Germans — along with a host of other hard-line nations including Finland and Slovakia — also seemed to suggest that euro-zone countries being more conciliatory to the Greeks on Sunday were failing to grasp just how much Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had fostered distrust. After he called a referendum and campaigned against an E.U. bailout, how, they reasoned, could he be trusted now that he was coming hat in hand?
“The most important currency has been lost, and that is trust,” Merkel told reporters in Brussels.
That hard-line position may be understandable in a country whose taxpayers are, more than any others in Europe, footing the bill for Greece’s mistakes. But without question, it raised fresh questions about what a German-led Europe would look like.
“It would be fatal for Germany’s reputation in the E.U. and the world if Berlin does not take a chance now on Greek reform offers,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. Using the shorthand for a Greek exit, he said, “If Germany is investing in a Grexit, it would provoke a profound conflict with France. That would be a disaster for Europe.”