How long can a government go on like this? Germany has never been as important to Europe as it is today – and its foreign policy never so weak. With each passing day the foreign policy crisis is increasingly sapping what had once been domestic policy. The fate of this government will be decided by a single question: whether it manages to redefine Germany’s position within Europe. Put more dramatically: to make the Germans once again feel at home in Europe.

The Chancellor, however, must be fearing for her majority, which is still behind the euro rescue. Her cabinet colleague Ursula von der Leyen, exploiting Merkel’s strategic vacuum to jockey into position as a possible successor, is pushing for a “United States of Europe” – a formula which, unfortunately for the CSU and FDP, is widely detested.

And it would have to happen just when foreign policy has become so vital that Germany has a foreign minister that no one takes seriously any longer. Guido Westerwelle’s futile attempts to credit the downfall of Gaddafi to German sanctions have made the disorientation of German politics once again blatantly clear to all. It is not just Guido Westerwelle who is on probation, but German foreign policy as a whole.

The worried Hegemon of Europe

Neither against the will of the Germans nor without them can Europe be saved. Germany is facing a question as big as rearmament, its alliance with the West or its Eastern policy: what is the country’s future inside Europe? The policy towards European integration, once the fiefdom of technocrats, has become the stage for the German identity crisis. The old theory that the country was too small to achieve hegemony in Europe and too big to guarantee equilibrium with the other countries appears to have been overtaken.

The best compromise of old – that Germany would wield the economic clout and France play the political heavyweight – is no longer working out. Before, Germany was able to buy power. But today it’s also an indispensable political force in Europe. Neither against the will of the Germans nor without them can Europe be saved.

In this attempt to hold the continent together, the euro was taken on, under pressure from the French, to prevent German hegemony in Europe. Ironically, however, the euro lay the foundation for German domination. Germans are Europe’s winners, and yet many in this country feel betrayed by Europe. The euro has made Germany into the worried Hegemon of Europe. Germany is afraid of Europe, and the Europeans fear German power. Just at a time when they are beginning to see themselves no longer as model Europeans, but as victims of the European idea, it’s the Germans who now have to rebuild the EU. While the concept of a unified Europe was once inherently valuable, many now believe that ‘more Europe’ threatens prosperity and values.

Fateful question of war and peace

Driven by the markets, the Chancellor is setting about reinforcing the new Europe in stealth mode. Officially she is fighting for the broadening of the German culture of stability, but terms such as ‘economic governance’, ‘European finance minister’, ‘Euro bonds’ and now even ‘United States of Europe’ have, through her policy, gradually shifted into the zone of the conceivable.

Flying under the radar, Germany has begun to remake Europe after its own image: Nicolas Sarkozy, former spokesman for the debtor countries, is now a champion of stability. Germany’s government must drop its strategic obduracy and account for why the German attitude has changed again to a degree greater than those left speechless in Berlin can even imagine.

Apart from the question of Europe, there remains the second fateful question of war and peace. What is the lesson to be drawn from the interventions of the past two decades – from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Libya? Get out as fast as possible – and never get involved again? The war in Libya has given rise to doubts, even if it is no model for a war. A “culture of restraint” should not become synonymous with the morally lofty philosophy of staying out at all costs.

Germany needs new strategic partners

Thirdly, there’s also a core question for Germany: Israel. How will Germany respond in September if the Palestinians demand recognition from the United Nations? After the Arab Spring, can this still be disdainfully rejected? We must escape the dreary rituals of Middle East diplomacy, yet without ending up positioning ourselves against Israel or the United States.

The decision over Libya has seen Germany come down on the side of Russia, China and India. Germany needs new strategic partners. But we cannot take up a policy of non-alignment. Germany needs all of Europe to be strong in order to compete with China – and Europe needs us in turn, to give it any weight in the world.

What Europe does Germany want? What Germany does Europe need? Only when it comes up with an answer will this government still have a chance.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer