The Old Opera House in Frankfurt — once Germany’s most beautiful postwar ruin and now its most stunning recreation — has become a symbol of European rebirth. And it was here, last month, that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy met the EU’s bureaucratic elite in what would, in another era, be described as a putsch. They had grown tired of eurozone summits, with leaders flying here and there but getting nowhere. A smaller group needed to be formed, who would wield power firmly but informally. That evening, as they gathered to hear Claudio Abbado conduct the Mozart Orchestra of Bologna, a new EU hit squad was born.
As Silvio Berlusconi has now found out, this so-called Frankfurt Group means business. Only a few months ago, it would have been unthinkable that the head of one European government would try to destabilise or depose another. Now, two EU leaders have fallen in a week. As Sarkozy knows from recent experience, to enforce regime change one need only give a helping hand to the rebels.
The group cannot be accused of being secretive. At the G20 summit in Cannes, its officials walked around with lapel badges saying ‘Groupe de Francfort (GdF)’ and met four times. Britain was not included but the Foreign Office’s officials spoke as if they were in on the act. As one official put it: ‘We’re on our way to moving out Berlusconi.’
Such a statement may once have been seen as outrageous, but by last weekend it was undeniable that an operation to remove Berlusconi had begun. When Merkel and Sarkozy were asked if they had confidence in him, they rolled their eyes and gave each other wry smiles. The European Central Bank, which is also part of the Frankfurt Group, gave only minimal support to Italy — leaving the bond markets to do their worst to Berlusconi. The International Monetary Fund, whose new leader was also at the Opera house that night, made it clear that it would be sending its auditors to Rome on a regular basis to inspect the books. All this combined to send an unmistakable Old Europe message: we have ways of making you quit.
When that night in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper on 19 October was booked, no one was intending to form a new hit squad. The plan was to have just an ordinary taxpayer-funded extravaganza, a shindig to mark Jean-Claude Trichet’s retirement from the European Central Bank. Helmut Schmidt, the 92-year-old former chancellor of Germany who is now seen as a godfather of the European project, told the assembled dignitaries that ‘a crisis in the ability to act of the EU’s political bodies’ was ‘a much bigger danger for the future of Europe than over-indebtedness’. It was time to get tough.
When Merkel spoke, she admitted frustration with European summits and their cumbersome democratic mechanics. ‘The EU’s ability to act and room for manoeuvre has proven slow and complicated,’ she complained. ‘If we want to seize the crisis as an opportunity, we must be prepared to act more quickly and even in unconventional ways.’ Sarkozy arrived late, but just in time for the stitch-up of the decade.
Also in attendance was the new head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, an Italian with no love for Berlusconi. Then Christine Lagarde, the new (French) director of the International Monetary Fund, who is in charge of bailouts and can impose humiliating conditions (as she went on to do to Berlusconi)…