Germany puts European parliament first

Christian Wulff, Germany’s new federal president, has not been idle. He had barely wiped his feet on the doormat in Schloss Bellevue, his splendid new Berlin residence, before setting off on a foreign trip.

While his job is without power, it carries lots of prestige. Indeed, the role is more about symbolism than substance. But the symbolism matters.

His first stop on Wednesday was in Strasbourg to meet Jerzy Buzek, European Parliament president. Second stop was Paris, for a chat with Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée palace. And third stop, on Thursday, was Brussels, where he had lined up Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general.

It was all about pouring oil on troubled waters, to be sure. Germany’s relationship to the European Union has seldom caused so much anxiety amongst its neighbours, since Berlin started to bang the drum with a vengeance about the need for fiscal discipline – first in Greece, and now in the rest of the eurozone.

Berlin’s relationship to Paris has also been called into question, especially in France. They are having awful trouble forging a common line on how to set up an “economic government” – France’s idea – for the eurozone. Mr Wulff made all the right noises about the Franco-German relationship being at the heart of Europe.

But the precise order of his journey sent a signal, too. He didn’t start in Paris or Brussels. He paid tribute at the court of the European Parliament. That was where the new president thought he could give the clearest signal. “I will support the pro-European policy of Germany with all my power,” he said.

Back in Brussels, Mr Barroso in particular must be feeling a bit miffed, and Mr Van Rompuy, too. Neither the Commission nor the Council is used to coming second or third in the pecking order to the European Parliament.

It says a lot about the German perception that the parliament matters more and more in the ancient institutional rivalries of the EU.

Last month, MEPs made sure there would be no new EU diplomatic service until they were satisfied with its details. This week their power has been underlined by the new EU rules to curb bank bonuses. It is partly a result of the Lisbon treaty, but the process has been going on inexorably for years.

Washington realised the parliament mattered a long time before London and Paris (where civil servants still talk disparagingly of “the assembly”). MEPs blocked agreement on the Swift measures to exchange financial data until the US agreed to better data protection standards. Both Joe Biden, vice-president, and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, went out of their way to woo them in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Of course, Mr Wulff does not have quite their political clout. But he is sending a signal, both to Germans at home and to the other EU institutions. Berlin is getting a bit tired of Mr Barroso’s interminable telephone calls, but the commitment to Europe as a whole remains strong, at least at the very top.

Quentin Peel is chief correspondent in Germany and an associate editor of the FT