Although headlines have railed at the United States for paying too much attention to Europe, the longer-term concern for German policymakers may be that US interest in Europe is fading.
Credit: Alexey Filippov

Editor's note: As Germans prepare for parliamentary elections later this month, senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of Europe’s most influential country. This is the second in his five-part series.

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Mark Twain Village will cease to exist this year.

The high school in this American town taught its final class in June. A nearby Taco Bell has served its last quesadilla. And behind a wire-mesh fence, the grass is already overgrown.

After 68 years, American forces are pulling out of Heidelberg, a picturesque riverside city that served as headquarters for US Army Europe and played host to 20,000 military personnel and their families.

By 2015, all US facilities here will be handed over to the German authorities, who are planning to construct civilian housing, a business park and sports facilities.

Some drab army apartment blocs are already being painted vivid yellow or orange for students settling in for the new year at Heidelberg's famed university.

Germans have become used to US military downsizing since the Cold War ended a quarter of a century ago. Troop numbers in Europe have fallen from a high of 400,000 to around 70,000, most based in Germany.

The latest restructuring, announced by President Barack Obama in 2012, includes the withdrawal of 10,000 troops. It’s also highlighting a tricky time in US-German relations.

As Germans prepare for national elections on Sept. 22, political debate and media outrage have focused on US whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations that American intelligence agencies ran a vast eavesdropping operation targeting Germany and other allied nations.

Although headlines have railed at the United States for paying too much attention to Europe, the longer-term concern for German policymakers may be that US interest in Europe is fading.

Those troop reductions and Obama's much-hyped foreign policy "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region is putting pressure on European allies to show greater leadership in their neighborhood and take more responsibility for their own defense.

That pressure is particularly strong on Germany.

The euro zone crisis has underscored its position as Europe's dominant economic power, which has pushed the country into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable leadership position.

"It is not our aim to be alone," says Karl Lamers, a prominent lawmaker with Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Party. "Germany is not looking for leadership, but many others are looking to Germany."

Lamers, who has represented Heidelberg in Germany's parliament for almost 20 years, is seeking re-election this month. He's also vice-president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly that brings together lawmakers from both sides of the Atlantic.

Like many German politicians, he insists the country remains committed to working within the European Union as an equal to the other 27 members rather than becoming the bloc's de facto leader.

"We don't like this position, to be the No. 1. We are among a number of strong countries in Europe," he said in an interview during a break from campaigning. "We are part of Europe, part of the EU, part of the euro zone, maybe a very strong part, but a player with all the others."

Nevertheless, it's clear that the euro crisis has changed Germany's position within Europe.

As the EU's paymaster-in-chief, Merkel's government has the last word on the bailouts that have kept the euro zone's peripheral economies afloat. It was Berlin that imposed the austerity designed to get southern economies back in shape by making them more like Germany.

The elections will therefore resonate far beyond Germany's borders.

Protesters in Portugal, Ireland and particularly Greece may have vilified Merkel for prolonging their austerity agony. Back home, polls show most Germans support the way she has managed the euro crisis, keeping the currency bloc together with limited bailouts — provided weaker countries accept tough conditions to knock public finances back into shape.

Less than two weeks before the vote, her CDU has a 15-point poll lead over the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Fears of a euroskeptic backlash over perceptions that hard-earned taxpayers cash is being lavished on spendthrift southerners have not materialized. A new anti-euro protest party called Alternative for Germany is forecast to get less than 3 percent of the vote, too little to win any seats in parliament.

"Germany is still committed to Europe," says Ulrike Guerot, senior policy fellow at the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

For today's Germans, however, that commitment is based more on a hard-nosed evaluation of the euro's costs and benefits attached to EU membership rather than the kind of bright-eyed idealism that fueled Europe's drive for unity in the aftermath of World War II.

"Everybody is going through a sort of catharsis and asking what's the price," Guerot says. "We are definitely in a post-romantic European Union, where it's not only about love and peace and prosperity, but we all realize that Europe has a price."

Barring a major upset, the elections are unlikely to produce a radical change in German's foreign policy — even if Merkel is forced to accept the SDP as a junior government partner instead of the market-friendly Free Democratic Party with whom her CDU has been in coalition for the past four years.

Although the Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrueck, has called for an economic stimulus package to mitigate austerity in southern Europe, policy differences between the two main parties are smaller than campaign rhetoric suggests.

Steinbrueck has taken a tougher line over the spying allegations. Last month he called for trans-Atlantic free trade negotiations to be suspended after it was proved the US National Security Agency was bugging German government offices.

Merkel — who shot down an earlier French attempt to freeze the trade talks — has been forced to fend off allegations that German spy agencies aided and abetted American snooping. In response, she wants to negotiate a "no spy" pact with Washington.

The Snowden affair has dealt a blow to the traditionally warm US-German relations. Disquiet over security service snooping runs deep in a country scarred by the activities of both the Nazi Gestapo and the East German Stasi.

One victim has been German adulation of Obama, who was greeted by a crowd of 200,000 Berliners when he visited as a presidential candidate in 2008. Back then, a catchy tune entitled "Ich will Obama als mann" (I want Obama as a man) became a fleeting dancefloor hit.

"We have landed back in reality, we were surprised he is so supportive of this system," says Jakob Koellhofer, director of the German-American Institute in Heidelberg. "But we are not so naive to think that America would not have a great interest in what's going on in our country."

Nevertheless Koellhofer views the angst over the NSA as a temporary blip in the generally warm relations. His institute — set up to promote cultural exchanges after WWII — has received just one letter complaining about the snooping claims.

"It’s a trust problem,” Guerot says. “It will take a huge amount of diplomacy to get us out of this," although she adds that public anger is more muted than might be expected.

"There is a lot of noise that we are all being spied on. On the other hand, everybody is on Facebook and more-or-less freely giving out their personal data," she says. "You don't see real anger ... people are not demonstrating."

The reports of just how extensively Washington appears to have spied on Germany highlight the country's central position in America's view of Europe.

With France economically weakened and Britain moving to the margins as it prepares for referendum on leaving the EU, Washington is looking to Germany as the pre-eminent power in Europe. And it's not alone. China's leadership has raised hackles in other European capitals by choosing to make Berlin their favored port of call for talks with Europe.

That concerns some Germans who worry about the consequences of their country's emergence as the head of what the Munich University sociologist Ulrich Beck calls an "accidental empire."

"There is a clear German conviction that Germany cannot run the show alone, for obvious historical reasons," Guerot says. "There is an obvious risk of resentment from the other countries, it cannot be all about Germany."

One area where the US would like to see Germany showing more leadership is in defense.

American officials have berated Europeans for shirking their responsibilities in providing for NATO's defenses. Unlike most others, Germany does not have the excuse of recession to explain its shrinking military budget.

Germany spends just 1.4 percent of its economic output on defense, well below the NATO target of 2 percent and half its 1988 figure. In comparison, the United States allocates 4.4 percent to defense.

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Anti-militarist sentiment is deeply rooted in postwar German society.

In 2011, Germany alienated allies by siding with China and Russia to abstain in the UN Security Council vote that gave the green light to NATO air raids on Libya.

Opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq caused a serious rift with Washington and the deployment of German troops to Afghanistan on their first overseas mission since 1945 has become widely unpopular.

As it pulls down the Stars and Stripes in Heidelberg and other bases in Europe, the US is hoping a more robust, German-led Europe can shoulder more of the security burden.

Germany, however, will remain reluctant to become more than an economic superpower.  

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