No country, especially in the 27-country European Union, should want to be the only international success story.

Not to be forgotten is that the Eurozone, scene of the current chaos, is enveloped by the EU. It is not the whole story of European integration. But, likewise, Europe as the world thinks of it encompasses even the EU.

Yet public opinion always searches for heroes. In the Eurozone’s chaotic economic situation, Germany seems to be Europe’s heroic “big,” a lone pillar of fiscal rectitude and industrial resilience. It is uniquely strong economically and stable politically among the European Union’s big four countries, including France, Italy and Britain.

Several smaller European Union countries are doing well enough. But Germany stands out among the EU’s four biggest economies, including France, Italy and the UK., in the midst of a triple-dip recession.

The problem for Germany is that success can be a mixed blessing. Germany’s economic success can become a serious political liability. Can economic strength and fiscal prudence alone buy political and emotional legitimacy for the European Union’s powerhouse economy?

Germany’s exceptionalism in Europe is becoming a problem. German unification occurred in 1989 as part of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its east European empire. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher (especially) and France’s François Mitterrand worried, thinking about the bad old days, about outsized German power. The Germans promised that the result of unification would be a European Germany rather than a German Europe. It worked out that way.

France’s acceptance of German unification was crucial. If the French, attacked three times 1870-1940 from the East, took the risk of a new unified Germany, others could as well.

Today, however, some Germans, and other Europeans (and some Americans), derive satisfaction, a sense of schadenfreude, seeing the haughty French with their generous welfare state floundering in economic and financial distress. Even the PIIG countries can feel less feckless.

But France’s weakness is a portentous issue for the Germans and thus for Europe. Smugness about a France that is merely the strongest of the weakest is short-sighted. The EU to succeed requires a balance of influence at the top. Germany needs a strong France because it needs a special partner to give its economic and financial strength political legitimacy by imposing some visible balancing of German strength. No other country can fulfill this role but France.

Germany can’t, and shouldn’t be asked to, carry the eurozone or the EU alone. It’s not strong enough and the Germans have everything to fear from being, or at least appearing, too successful. Germany cannot go global alone if not for economic then for political reasons.

Historically, Franco/German joint action has always been the moving force in pushing the EU forward through crisis. Private Franco/German negotiations often led to agreements that the other EU governments could accept because the two countries combined interests that spanned the EU national diversity. What Latin/agricultural/Mediterranean France and Protestant/industrial/northern Germany agreed, normally reflected everyone else’s interests.

Part of Mitterrand’s reason for endorsing German unification (‘we’re not going to war to prevent German unification,’ he said) was to get the single currency, which meant to temper French monetary weakness with Germany’s economic strength. Many now argue that it was a mistake and a few observers argued it from the very beginning.

Today the euro system shares the blame for financial and economic weakness. But sometimes good things come out of bad things. To paraphrase Churchill’s famous quip about America, the European Union will ultimately go in the right direction but only after its masters have stared into the abyss.

In fact, the euro system and fiscal union might have developed out of previous political union with much less drama and pain than has been the case in the past several years. However fiscal and political union in the controlled chaos of the collapse of communism was impossible.
But, without the euro system, European integration in the past 20 years would be much less than it is. If one thing has been proven, it’s that the Eurozone countries will impose a lot of pain on themselves to see the euro survive.

It is safe to say that there will one day be a United States of Europe, even if it still is called European Union. However, institutionally, the American federal system won’t be the model. Today’s uniquely balanced German federal structure is more appropriate in terms of power and more European in terms of historically necessities.

The Federal government in Berlin contends, in policy terms and politically, with a strong Senate (the Bundesrat) built on Germany’s powerful historical states (the Laender). An evolved EU based on the Bundesrat/Berlin balance, not the American presidentialized republic, would best balance national sovereignty of Europe’s historical states and necessary federal institutions at the EU level.

Even France’s Charles de Gaulle, the heroic leader of national sovereignty, forecast (to his own regret) half a century ago that a European federation would inevitably emerge in the next half century.

The great unknown about a United States of Europe, necessary in a globalized world, is whether it arrives in time or too late to save the Old Continent from permanent decline.

Crucial to that outcome is whether France will be the special partner to Germany that it, and Europe, requires.