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As Germany takes over the rotating presidency of the EU this month, all eyes are on Berlin and expectations could not be higher. The union’s largest member state is expected to save the European project over the next six months — from the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, an increasingly menacing geopolitical environment, and from Europe’s homemade failures, fragmentation, and institutional fragility born of the last decade. With multiple challenges coming to a head, this appears to be a moment of truth not just for the future trajectory of the EU but also for the legacy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
First on the docket are not one but two crucial, time-sensitive negotiations over who pays how much and who gets what, always among the EU’s most divisive questions.
There are deep divisions between the so-called Frugal Four (Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands) and hard-hit southern member states led by Italy over the modalities for a €750billion EU recovery fund.
Moreover, Brexit negotiations appear to be in crisis.
Reports suggest next to no progress in talks to date which face a hard deadline of December 31, 2020 and no realistic hope of anyone in London contemplating an extension any time soon.
Germany will have to help keep the 27 EU member states united through the bargaining with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has shown little concern for a no deal scenario.
As the clock ticks down and tensions are set to rise, unearthed reports suggest just how damaging Britain's departure from the bloc has been for Germany and shed light on the implications this could have on the EU as a whole.
In an entry for the London School of Economics (LSE)' s blog published just before the 2016 EU referendum, Hans Kundnani, the former research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the EU without Britain would have made Germany even more dominant – but that was not necessarily what the German Chancellor wanted.
He noted that other member states already resented German hegemony and the pressure on the Chancellor to solve crises would have only increased.
Mr Kundnani wrote: "Since the euro crisis began in 2010, there has been much discussion about German 'hegemony' within the EU. The events of the last six years, in particular the refugee crisis, have demonstrated the limits of German power as much as the extent of it.
"Moreover, the UK is already outside of the euro and Schengen areas, where most of the bitterest intra-EU battles now take place. Nevertheless, some fear that were the UK to leave the EU altogether, Germany would really be a hegemon.
However, the expert noted, this was to exaggerate the real extent of German power in the EU.
Even within the eurozone, Germany makes up only 28 percent of total GDP – France (21 percent) and Italy (16 percent) together make up a bigger share.
He added: "This illustrates that Germany is not a hegemon at all – with or without the UK – but rather a 'semi-hegemon'.
"Part of the nature of this semi-hegemonic position is that it leads to a perception of dominance and therefore resistance – in particular through the formation of coalitions to balance against German power.
"Indeed, that has been part of the story of what has happened in Europe since the beginning of the euro crisis: the south has resisted Germany on economic policy and the east has resisted it on refugee policy. In both cases, Germany has been accused of ‘imperialism’.
A British withdrawal from the EU, Mr Kundnani added, would have increased this perception of German dominance – and with it the pressure on other countries to form coalitions to 'counterbalance' against German power.
He noted: "Paradoxically, therefore, Germany could in reality be weaker in an EU without the UK.
"Meanwhile, given its greater relative weight, expectations of Germany would likely increase further – leading to even greater anger at Germany than at present for its inability or unwillingness to solve Europe’s problems."
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