The bonds that support the EU

Today’s meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras offers them the opportunity to strengthen the image of the European Union as a bloc which has its eyes on the future. For too many months, Europe has drifted aimlessly, between decisions not taken and decisions not implemented. No one is uniquely guilty of this and no one solely responsible. Every country and every EU mechanism is trying to cope with a torrent of change on the domestic and international front. The result, though, is a lack of devotion to necessary commitments. The lack of a strong and determined EU policy undermines cohesion and faith in the Union, reinforcing formerly marginal groups that now threaten the EU’s existence.

Can so much be expected from a meeting between the leader of the most powerful member of the EU and her counterpart from a country that has been propped up by its partners for more than three years? It is precisely the “inequality” between Germany and Greece, though, that is the essence of the test that the EU faces. We need to see whether the two countries are united by a bond that is greater than their own national interests and needs, or whether that bond will be broken, shaking the very foundations of the Union. It is as simple as the bond between any two individuals or groups: The bond is measured by the strength of devotion to it – by the fact that however unequal the members may be, they are united by the mutual understanding, by the expectation, that the bond will be honored.

In today’s meeting, Merkel and Samaras will test how the bond between two EU members is holding. Germany expects Greece to live up to its commitments under the terms of the international bailout agreed upon in 2010, and is impatient with Athens’s inability to implement reforms on time.

Samaras will probably argue that Greece is doing all it can to honor its commitments but has hit a wall in the form of reform fatigue which is draining the governing coalition of strength and rewards the very forces that make change so difficult. Many may argue, also, that Germany, too, is not blameless – delaying or undermining reforms, such as banking union, which would relieve troubled members while also strengthening the Union.

Both sides have a point. And both countries can do more. But Germany has the greater power to influence events. If it fails to consider Samaras’s very real political problems, this will have two very serious consequences: It will ignore the possibility that the austerity and reform formula was wrong, either in principle or in implementation or both; and it will lead to deadlock in the reform effort in Greece and citizens’ further loss of faith in the euro and Europe. And, as we have seen so many times in this crisis, what starts in Greece does not stay in Greece.