Second of five parts
The financial calamity of the European Union's sovereign debt woes has shaken the pillars of the postwar ideal of a united Europe. The debt crisis and the global downturn have left many European countries looking inward these days and viewing Brussels as increasingly irrelevant.
Germany, long a postwar champion and financier of European integration, is flexing its muscles more independently. And more of its citizens are questioning the country's leading role in the European project.
On a recent day, Christian Gelleri buys a sandwich and a glass of Hefeweizen at a rustic, sun-filled outdoor beer garden along the Inn River in the Upper Bavarian town of Stefanskirchen.
But the 40-year-old isn't paying with euros. The bar also accepts chiemgauer, the thriving local currency named after a region in Bavaria.
A Euro Substitute?
The alternative currency is not some gimmicky fundraiser. It may look a little like Monopoly money, but the chiemgauer is real. One chiemgauer equals one euro. It's been around for eight years, almost as long as the euro, the common currency now used by 16 of the 27 EU members.
Gelleri, a high school teacher who established the chiemgauer, is proud that more than 600 regional businesses — from drugstores to architects — now accept the microcurrency.
"The chiemgauer is connected to the region. You can't speculate with it, you can't buy stocks or options or shares with it," he says.
In other words, you can only spend it in the area. Organizers insist the currency is meant to promote a "buy local" mentality and is a complement to the euro. The chiemgauer is not backed by federal or local governments, though some banks are offering loans and checking accounts in the currency.
But the fact that there are more than two dozen regional currencies like this in Germany — the most anywhere in the world — underscores the German ambivalence toward the euro.
Adoption of the euro was supposed to lead to a deeper, more coherent fiscal and political union. But the single currency hasn't really delivered on either.
And intended or not, the microcurrency trend plays into German nostalgia for the deutsche mark, the national currency that the euro replaced.
Support Fading For EU
A recent poll by Germany's Ipsos Institute showed that more than half of all Germans still want a return to the deutsche mark. And some in the younger generation wonder whether any deeper European integration effort is really worth it.
Patrick Guenet was just a year old in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the reunification of Germany began. The 22-year-old is currently completing his mandatory public service — in lieu of military service — working in an after-school program.
Guenet is part of the younger generation who grew up with the perks of a united Germany and a united European Union. But these days, he looks at the recent plan to help bail out the Greek economy and questions whether the EU is really such a bonus.
"The good things are, for example, you can travel. I love it to travel. I can eat cheese from Hungary. And the bad things are that most of the money that we earned — and that we also needed in Germany — will go to another country because they [did] something wrong," he says.
Germany isn't exactly writing big checks to Greece — it has agreed with the IMF and eurozone states to create a nearly $1 trillion safety net in loan guarantees if needed.
But the perception is that Germany is doing more than its share and is bailing out a country that cheated on its finances. Polls show more than one-third of Germans want Greece kicked out of the eurozone — and Guenet is one of them.
"The Greece people [don't] get it. They don't know what it means to save money. What will happen if we kick them out of the euro? I mean, the euro will be higher again. Then they can come back if they follow some rules. I mean, there should be some rules that they have to keep," Guenet says.
That feeling is widespread in Germany and can't merely be dismissed as tabloid populism. Indeed, there is fear in the country that the Greek crisis has rattled the German faith in the wider European venture.
"The whole European integration project is based on a certain level of understanding, of trust and also of solidarity that people feel that they are part of a larger European Union," says Daniela Schwarzer of Germany's Institute for International and Security Affairs. "And I would argue that we have to rebuild this now."
Schwarzer says that rebuilding needs help from German policymakers whom she says are not doing enough to make the public case for the euro and for the European Union.
"To make clear to the citizens why Europe is a big advantage the way it is. Why we even have to move further with political integration in the eurozone and in the EU in general. And why falling back into nationalism and into ideas of separating single member states out of the eurozone or out of the European Union is clearly no alternative," she says.
Making The Case For Euro Unity
Klaus Barthel, a member of the German parliament with the opposition Social Democrats, agrees.
"We are in a dangerous situation within the whole EU," he says. "In nearly every member state, we have right-wing populist tendencies, we have a stronger nationalist debate, we have euro criticism against the European Union. This is a dangerous situation within Germany, too, because more and more people say we have to pay for all the others," Barthel says.
Shamed by two world wars and the atrocities of the Nazi dictatorship, Germany became the post-World War II champion of European integration. For years in Brussels, German diplomats pressed for or went along with integrationist initiatives, heavily bankrolled them and carefully repositioned national interests as European ones.
Now, in the wake of the debt crisis, a process that has been under way for a decade has accelerated: Germany is now more openly and independently asserting its interests, not wrapping them in the language of Europa.
Constanze Stelzenmueller with the German Marshall Fund sees it as a change in tone.
"What you see today is, I think, a greater willingness on the part of the German government to say in public that it disagrees with the French or the English government, or with other governments, and that in fact it doesn't want to be the paymaster of Europe anymore," she says.
And it can't afford to be the EU paymaster. Leftists in Germany have already taken to the streets against proposed federal budget cuts they say unfairly target society's most vulnerable.
And many ordinary Germans see the EU as increasingly unwieldy, meddling and overly bureaucratic. Critics say the body has fallen into a pattern of crisis management and lacks strategic leadership.
Despite the EU's flaws, Stelzenmueller says everyone realizes that going back to 27 separate nation-states is not an option.
"It may not be, for my generation of Germans and Europeans, the political project that saves us from going to war with each other again. Those days, I think, are over," she says.
"But we do understand that in an age of globalization, the European Union is what gives us a common voice on the international stage. It is the foundation for our prosperity, and it is what enables us to trade with the rest of world," Stelzenmueller says.
But in the wake of the European debt crisis, it's increasingly hard to convince Germans of those arguments — even that the EU is very relevant to their lives — beyond shorter passport lines in Europe and more cheese options.