Fateful days: The West and Russia celebrated their victory over Nazi Germany on 8 and 9 May, respectively. This year the armed forces of the Allied coalition marched through Moscow together for a joint Victory Day parade. Angela Merkel stood right next to Putin on Red Square. Her presence reaffirmed the spirit of a "new" Germany. The chancellor had flown in from Brussels, where, in a wholly different capacity, she had seen a defeat of a wholly different kind. The image of that press conference where the EU heads of state announced their decision to put together a joint rescue package for the ailing euro betrays the fretfulness not of the new, but of present-day Germany. That grating photo captures the stony faces of Merkel and Sarkozy – a pair of worn-out heads of state who had nothing left to say to each other. Will that be an iconographic document of the demise of a vision that marked postwar European history for over half a century?

In Moscow, Merkel crept back under the shadow of the old Federal Republic. But she had just spent a long week in Brussels struggling alongside hardline lobbyists for the national interests of the biggest economic powerhouse in the Union. With appeals to follow the example of German fiscal discipline, she had blocked the Union’s concerted efforts to shore up Greece’s creditworthiness in time to avert a state bankruptcy. Ineffectual declarations of intent had foiled an attempt at concerted preventive action.

Momentousness of Brussels decision is now dawning

Not until the latest stock market shock did the chancellor silently relent, softened up by the gentle collective persuasion of the presidents of the United States, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. In her dread of the tabloids’ weapons of mass destruction, she seemed to have lost any sense of the devastating power of the financial markets’ WMDs. She didn’t want any part of a eurozone of which EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso was to say: if you don’t want economic unification, you’ll have to forget the monetary union, too.

The momentousness of the Brussels decision is now dawning on everyone concerned. The prevailing metaphors these days, in which we are ceaselessly deploying rescue parachutes and putting together rescue packages, mustn’t obscure the fact that the emergency measures to save the euro will have different consequences from any previous bailout. Because the Commission is now taking out loans on the market for the EU as a whole, this “crisis mechanism” is now a “Community instrument” that changes the contractual basis of the European Union.

German politics is unprepared for concerted action

No-one can write off the IMF president’s call for “European economic governance” as an unreasonable proposition anymore. This is not only about Greek “cheating” and Spanish “delusions of prosperity”, but an alignment of economic development levels within a monetary zone with very diverse national economies. And yet there is no trace anywhere of a consciousness of the ensuing sea change. Some are blurring the causal connection between the euro crisis and the banking crisis and blaming the whole disaster on a dearth of fiscal discipline. Others are eagerly trying to gloss over the failure to coordinate national economic policies as a mere management issue.

The European Commission intends to put the interim euro rescue fund on a permanent footing and to vet national budgets before they get passed. These proposals are not unreasonable. However, it is outrageous to suggest that such an encroachment by the Commission on national parliaments’ budgetary prerogatives do not impinge on the treaties and indeed exacerbate the long-standing democratic deficit in an unprecedented way. Effectively dovetailing economic policies has to entail a quantum boost to the powers of the European Parliament. It is not a matter of “mutual monitoring of economic policies” (as ECB president Trichet puts it), but of concerted action. And German politics is woefully unprepared for that.

Mentality changed after Helmut Kohl

After the Holocaust, it took decades of all-out exertions – from Adenauer via Brandt and Helmut Schmidt to Kohl – to bring West Germany back into the fold of civilised nations. The prevailing mentality had to undergo an infinitely arduous overhaul. What ultimately propitiated our neighbours was, first and foremost, the changed normative convictions and the cosmopolitan attitudes of the younger generations who had grown up in the Federal Republic of Germany. West Germans seemed to have to come to terms with the division of the country anyway. Remembering the Nazi excesses of the past, they simply couldn’t find it hard to forgo the re-establishment of their sovereign rights, to take on the role of the biggest net contributors to Europe and, if need be, make concessions that would eventually pay off for West Germany anyway.

The new German intransigence has deeper roots. In the wake of reunification, Germany’s perspective had already changed in an enlarged country preoccupied with its own problems. But there was a more sweeping change in mentality after Helmut Kohl. Ever since Gerhard Schröder took office, a normatively neutralised generation has held sway, in an increasingly complex society that imposes a short-winded approach to day-to-day problems. Conscious of its diminishing room for manoeuvre, the new generation has give up far-sighted goals and major political makeovers, let alone a project like European unification.

Self-absorbed colossus in the middle of Europe

In our day, the German elites are enjoying the return to normality as a nation-state. The morally defeated nation that was once compelled to self-criticism is no longer anxious to speed up the quest for its place in the post-national configuration. In a globalised world, everyone has to learn to incorporate others’ points-of-view into his own. One political symptom of our dwindling willingness to learn that lesson is the German Constitutional Court’s verdicts on the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, rulings that cling to dogmatic and outmoded legal conceptions of sovereignty. The solipsistic and normatively depleted mindset of this self-absorbed colossus in the middle of Europe can no longer even guarantee that the European Union will be preserved in its wavering status quo.

In and of itself, a change of mentality is no cause for reproach, but the new indifference has consequences for our political perceptions of the challenges ahead. Nowadays, who is really willing to learn the lessons of the banking crisis, which the London G20 summit enshrined in fine declarations of intent a long time ago – and to fight for that?

A modicum of political pluck

The experts have put forward their demands. Regulating financial markets is no easy matter, to be sure. But these good intentions are thwarted not so much by the “complexity of the markets” as by the national governments’ faintheartedness and lack of independence. They are thwarted by the rash rejection of any international cooperation aimed at boosting our sorely wanting capacity to take action – worldwide, in the EU and, to begin with, inside the eurozone. As to the Greek bailout, foreign exchange dealers and speculators believe more in [Deutsche Bank president Josef] Ackermann’s shrewd defeatism than Merkel’s lukewarm consent to the euro rescue fund; they take the realistic view that the eurozone countries aren’t actually capable of working together resolutely. And how could it be otherwise in a club that wears itself out in cockfights over appointments to its highest-ranking posts – only to fill them with the drabbest candidates around?

In times of crisis, even individuals can make history. Our lily-livered political elites, who prefer to keep their eyes glued to the tabloid headlines, shouldn’t try to talk their way out of it by claiming it’s the people who are blocking deeper European integration. To date not a single country has held a European election or referendum that wasn’t really about national issues and tickets. With a modicum of political pluck, the crisis of the single currency may yet achieve what some once hoped from a common European foreign policy: a consciousness, reaching beyond national borders, that we share a common European fate.