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To end the euro crisis, will Europe sing Germany's song?

Merkel seeks fiscal prudence and other German-like economic practices in euro countries in return for more bailouts or Eurobonds. Is Berlin now Europe's moral leader?

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    German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses next to a Christmas tree at the Chancellery in Berlin, last week.
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In the film “My Fair Lady,” a befuddled Professor Higgins begins a song with: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” That line could well be altered for today’s euro crisis, with the Germans singing:

Why can’t the rest of Europe be more like us?

The euro crisis is now 18 months old and threatening the world economy. All eyes are on Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, to see how much she demands of profligate euro nations like Italy to, well, act more like Germany – before they are further rescued by the taxpayers of the continent’s biggest economy.

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Ms. Merkel sees a moral lesson in insisting that euro nations practice prudent spending, harmonious labor-business ties, and a kind of disciplined borrowing that avoids inflation. Germans talk of spreading their “stability culture,” which includes living within one’s means while also maintaining a welfare state.

Many of her critics just want more German money or Berlin’s approval of Eurobonds in order to quickly end the crisis. Merkel, however, first seeks a commitment to rectifying qualities, expressed in altered treaties and reform of institutions.

Or as she put it last year: “This is about the primacy of politics. This is about the limits of the markets.”

Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, put a spotlight on Germany’s role in a speech Tuesday before a Berlin audience. “You have become Europe’s indispensable nation,” he told them.

He cited German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s advice that honesty and responsibility are imperative in the lending and repaying of money. Those attributes form a moral order that, Mr. Sikorski said, should be the cornerstone of the 27-member European Union and its 332 million people.

EU leaders gather Dec. 8-9 and may accept some of Merkel’s reforms. One could be a closer union that forces fiscal rectitude on each government. Countries may be asked to give up more sovereignty to a more centralized European entity. The Polish foreign minister talks of a “United States of Europe” with a directly elected president.

Some critics of Merkel bring up Germany’s Nazi past (hoping to get more guilt money) or cite how much Germany has benefited from the common currency in expanding its exports. Both complaints miss the main point: A German rescue without reform is no rescue at all. The same mistakes could be easily repeated.

Germany would need to give up more say over its economy if the EU adopts Merkel’s ideas of a more tightly knitted union. That’s a big price for Germans to pay in return for other countries being “more like” Germany.

Germans are not at ease in reshaping Europe so fundamentally. They have seen their postwar role as more like Switzerland’s. But as Sikorski said, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

If the Germans, who must now act as reluctant leaders, can keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs, then they just might have a following.

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