This week's big questions: Can Angela Merkel save the European Union? Should Turkey be allowed to join?

This week's questions answered by historian Brendan Simms


Can Angela Merkel save the EU both politically and economically?

Angela Merkel could save Europe by pushing for a constitutional convention for the eurozone and creating a political union on Anglo-American lines with a consolidated debt and common representative structures. She certainly has the authority within Europe to do so, and in Germany itself her CDU party is by far and away the most trusted on “European” issues. It is unlikely that she will do so, however, because her political style is largely reactive.

How do you view her decision to make the speech she did this week in Dachau?

The immediate timing of the Dachau speech was dictated by an invitation from the Holocaust survivor Max Mannheimer, but it is of piece with Ms Merkel’s previous actions. Unlike her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, Ms Merkel has not argued that Germany is now a “normal” nation, which has transcended the Nazi past. Instead, she has held joint cabinet meetings with Israel, been tougher on Iranian sponsorship of international terrorism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. The Jewish community in Germany holds her in high esteem.

Is the outcome of next month’s German election now a foregone conclusion?

The overwhelming likelihood is that Ms Merkel will be the next Chancellor, though the exact composition of the coalition is not clear. Nothing short of a “September surprise”– say, German involvement in a Middle Eastern war or a euro blowout leading to an economic collapse comparable to that which erupted in 2008 – can stop her now. This state of affairs reflects both her competent management of the economy – from a narrow German point of view – and the absence of a credible opposition.

What do you think of the argument sometimes heard that united Germany’s rise to economic dominance in Europe is nothing other than the fulfilment of Hitler’s project by other means?

Not much. There is no possible comparison between Hitler’s genocidal project and modern Germany’s genuine, if sometimes clumsy and misdirected, attempts to manage the euro crisis in the common interest. That is not to say that there are not useful parallels to be made between the current situation the perennial “German question”, the structural problem of a large and economically and politically potentially dominant state at the very heart of Europe. What we are seeing now is the difficulty of “embedding” Germany in common structures without either fleecing German taxpayers to shore up the southern periphery, or disenfranchising the “bailed out” by subjecting them to austerity programmes by diktat.

Has the formation and expansion of the European Union made another European war impossible?

War between Western European countries was made militarily impossible by the Nato alliance; the EU provided important economic and cultural underpinning of the peace. Given Washington’s retreat from Europe, and the looming security vacuum in the east, a future eurozone political union will have to become a major security player in its own right. There is also a (remote) danger that a failure of the European project could lead to a revival of national tensions and conflict further down the road.

Where do you set the border of Europe and do you support Turkey’s accession to the EU?

Europe’s borders should be set politically and strategically. The future eurozone political union will have to secure its “neighbourhood” one way or the other, and the best way is to admit those states prepared to surrender their sovereignty in the interests of democracy, security, an agreed set of liberal values and prosperity. The admission of Turkey would be highly desirable in principle, but – in its current Islamist or alternative secular nationalist incarnations – sadly impossible.

What should be the West’s response to the latest atrocity in Syria? Has a red line been crossed? Is it time to intervene militarily?

We still need more information on that particular atrocity, but the pattern of regime behaviour has been clear from the start, which has been to use extreme force and play the sectarian card. As in Bosnia, our reluctance to intervene in support of what was originally a non-violent protest has created an opening for Islamist terrorism. That cannot be an argument against doing the right thing now, which is to defend refugees in “safe areas” through the use of air power, and to support the non-Islamist rebels in their struggle to bring down the Baathist dictatorship.

Does a free press mean we have the right to know classified information if it shows the extent to which government spies on its citizens?

Elected governments in Western democracies have the right to conduct surveillance to protect their citizens from terrorist outrages and suchlike, or to authorise their allies to do so, providing this information is not misused for other purposes and is subject to parliamentary control. I personally have no objection to the security services reading my emails and other communications so long as such safeguards are in place. In this context, a free press would usually have no right to place in the public domain information that might jeopardise our security.

As a professor at Cambridge University, do you think Oxbridge is guilty of perpetuating education that’s largely for the benefit of a social elite?

No. While serving as a director of Studies for about 15 years and admissions tutor for five years, I was struck by the efforts that Cambridge made to improve access. We spent a great deal of time visiting state schools, inviting teachers to visit, either individually or on open days, and reaching out in other ways. Moreover, the tutorial system gives students from more disadvantaged backgrounds a uniquely favourable framework to develop.

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