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Published: Saturday, 12/3/2011

Germany taking lead on Europe debt crisis


BERLIN -- For more than half a century, the legacy of World War II has meant that the mere mention of a new rise of German power sent shudders through European nations.

Now Germany is increasingly calling the shots for the entire continent -- and few seem to mind.

European leaders are panicked over unsustainable debt that could take down the entire global economy.

From the streets to the halls of power, all eyes are trained on Germany -- by far Europe's biggest economy -- to lead the continent out of crisis.

On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed forward with a Berlin-engineered action plan for containing Europe's crisis, calling for tougher rules to keep national budgets under control.

She suggested there was no quick fix to the region's debt woes.

"The German government has made it clear that the European crisis will not be solved in one fell swoop," Ms. Merkel told Parliament in Berlin. "It's a process, and that process will take years."

Ms. Merkel tried to dispel speculation that closer cooperation within the euro zone would mean greater division within the European Union.

In her speech, she set the agenda for a critical European Union summit next week, saying it would grapple with a strategy to make sure countries follow the rules and write changes into EU treaties.

She also addressed concerns that German power and influence had grown too great within the euro zone, a topic of rampant speculation in the British press.

Germany, she said, did not wish to dominate Europe.

"That is farfetched," she said.

Increasingly, however, such fears appear to be getting more subdued.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, whose nation often lives in the shadow of its giant northern neighbor, dismissed out of hand any worries about renewed German dominance.

"I'm really happy," he said of Ms. Merkel's initiatives for saving Europe.

Some Europeans have contemplated with horror what would happen if Germany got fed up with Europe's debt shambles and simply walked away.

"What is left of the euro if Germany says good-bye? A house of cards," Lennart Sacredeus, a lawmaker with the Christian Democrats in Sweden's governing coalition, wrote in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

Throughout the crisis, Ms. Merkel has worked closely with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the other heavyweight leader among the nations that share the euro.

But Mr. Sarkozy, slumping in polls ahead of elections next year, has recently proved much more willing to bend to the chancellor's way of thinking.

Most Europeans seem inclined to support Germany's leadership -- or at least to go along with it.

While former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi bristled at German interference, new Prime Minister Mario Monti has called the German culture of stability one of its "better exports."

And newspapers regularly praise the combined Merkel-and-Sarkozy approach to solving Europe's problems.

In Britain, however, Prime Minister David Cameron is under enormous pressure to use the debt crisis as a way to take back certain powers Britain has ceded to the European Union as a part of any new or changed treaty.

Some lawmakers from his own Conservative Party, concerned about rising German influence in Europe, were already coming out in opposition to any deal on Friday.

"We're witnessing the creation of a kind of German zone" in Europe, Bill Cash, a Conservative lawmaker and longtime euro critic, told the BBC.

"This is very much not in the interest of the United Kingdom."

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