Will the gap between the British and German visions of the European Union get wider and wider until it becomes unbridgeable? Or have the refugee crisis, and the Paris attacks, weakened Berlin’s ability to continue on its federalising path?

The German political class continues to insist that “European unification is the only possible answer to globalisation”, as Wolfgang Schäuble, the Finance Minister, put it a few days ago. The line most widely reported from his speech, about a single skier setting off a Lawine, or avalanche, was taken to be a disobliging reference to his colleague Angela Merkel’s mishandling of the refugee question.

But if, as is entirely possible, Schäuble replaces Merkel as Chancellor, Germany’s drive towards the creation of a United States of Europe will become even more determined. He sought to prepare his listeners for transfers from rich members of the euro to poor ones, and for further surrenders of national powers.

David Cameron has taken huge care to keep Merkel on side as he seeks to revise the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union. In a fascinating passage of his recent Chatham House speech, he even tried to enlist German help in defence of national sovereignty:

“We need to examine the way that Germany and other EU nations uphold their constitution and sovereignty. For example, the Constitutional Court in Germany retains the right to review whether essential constitutional freedoms are respected when powers are transferred to Europe. And it also reserves the right to review legal acts by European institutions and courts to check that they remain within the scope of the EU’s powers…or whether they have overstepped the mark. We will consider how this could be done in the UK.”

The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe has indeed reserved the right to consider these questions. Its judges have not, however, defied the politicians, or betrayed any eagerness to do so. Like every other institution in Germany, the court has evaded or deferred the difficult question of deciding what kind of nation Germany now is.

A foreigner is quite likely to get the answer to that question wrong, as I admitted a year ago in a piece for ConHome called “Nine things the British don’t understand about the Germans”. Even the similarities between our two countries can become a cause of misunderstanding, “for the visiting British eurosceptic tends to be encouraged by them into the erroneous belief that the Germans take exactly the same view as he does of the EU”.

But the national question is also one the Germans themselves cannot yet answer. Merkel has given, in response to the refugee crisis, an answer so contrary to the instincts of German conservatives that however effectively she now tries to prevent illegal immigration, her original statement of intent could prove to be her political death warrant.

The Chancellor declared in September that Germany can and should welcome huge numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. Her catchphrase became “Wir schaffen das”: “We can do it.”

From a practical point of view, she is right. The Germans have more than enough money to support and train these newcomers, and their economy is crying out for more workers.

But do the Germans want to do it? That is where Merkel appears to have misjudged the public mood, and has already been forced to concede tighter rules on who can take refuge in Germany. In a recent piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Ralph Bollmann recalled a revealing outburst by the Chancellor when her welcome to refugees first came under attack:

“I must quite honestly say: if we now have to start apologising for showing a friendly face in crisis situations, then this is no more my country.”

Her words are so pregnant because until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification in 1990, West Germany wasn’t her country. Merkel was brought up in a Lutheran household in East Germany, and her first career, which lasted until her mid-thirties, was as a scientist.

From reunification onwards, she made a second career as a rising star in the Christian Democratic Union, a party dominated by Roman Catholic men from the Rhineland. It could not be supposed she shared their political instincts, but she turned this difference to her and the party’s advantage.

Merkel was outside Helmut Kohl’s power system, so was free to strike the blow which ended his career after it emerged he had accepted illegal donations from contributors whose names he refused to disclose. She was not part of the milieu which found that system acceptable, or unavoidable. Schäuble, who might otherwise have succeeded Kohl, was too close to him.

Her rise in the year 2000 to the CDU leadership, and then in 2005 to the chancellorship, demonstrated that the party, and then the whole country, had room at the top for an easterner, and a woman. The nation had enlarged, or reunited, itself.

But the mistrust which existed from the first between Merkel and West German conservatives was suppressed. Since 2005, Merkel has silenced criticism from within the ranks of the Christian Democratic Union by winning three general elections in a row.

Angela MerkelHer followers could not make head or tail of this smiling, enigmatic woman from the east, who was so good at concentrating on the job in hand, and at veiling her opinion of them. That smile, irresistibly reminiscent of Alec Guinness keeping an amusing thought to himself, was in evidence last week when she defended her refugee policy on the ZDF television channel.

Her implicit promise to the German people has long been that she would take care of things, so they need not worry. And for year after year she kept this promise: when the euro went wrong in Greece, she demonstrated her remarkable gifts as a crisis manager.

It would be unfair to blame Merkel for failing to resolve the ambiguities inherent in the euro. Her task was to reassure West German savers, who have toiled for over half a century to place their finances on a sound footing.

So the Chancellor calmed the hysterical fear of change, disorder, inflation, anarchy and ruin which lurks beneath the ordered and respectable surface of West German society, that creation of the 1950s.

She became the champion, the ally, of these small-town conservatives, whose post-war prosperity made them ever more prudent and ever more averse to anything in the nature of a risk or an upheaval.

Neither the Germans, nor the other members of the single currency, were ready to decide if they wished to remain as nation states, or were now part of a United States of Europe.

The German political class believed, at least in theory, in the European path. For them it was a way of escaping the intolerable burden of being German.

The German people were deeply reluctant to give up the German mark, that symbol of West Germany’s economic miracle, and of a patriotism uncontaminated by the Nazis.

Kohl tightened his grip on his fellow politicians by getting them to insist almost unanimously, and in defiance of public opinion, on the introduction of the euro. This brilliant, brutish power broker used the language of a higher, European morality to disable the German Left and prolong his own dominance.

Merkel too is not above stealing the Left’s clothes. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, she decided, without consultation, that Germany, although not exposed to tidal waves, would abandon nuclear power.

The country has been left with some of the highest energy prices in Europe, from which parts of its industry are protected, for real life has somehow to continue. But in political terms, this was a masterstroke.

Moralistic environmentalism reinforced moralistic Europeanism. Merkel’s opponents were powerless. Short of declaring themselves immoral, they had nothing left to say.

But now, in the refugee crisis, Merkel has attempted an even grander moral stroke. I suspect she has done this, not just out of political calculation, but because she does not share the narrowness of outlook, the West German inhibitions of so many CDU voters.

Her open door policy on refugees came as a dreadful shock to the CDU, to their Bavarian allies, and to many conservative-minded Germans. They are bewildered and frightened by the move. As a conservative friend of mine in what used to be West Germany put it to me a few days ago:

“One thing is clear: the refugee crisis, which has been the number one topic for months now, is going to cost us. Once again we will have to roll up our sleeves and work, and the costs will be born by the taxpayer, as usual. But this time it is not really for our own benefit. Maybe we have the resources, but what good is it going to achieve, save for the refugees? They, however, cannot speak our language, have hardly any qualifications and do not know our values. This is political dynamite and our politicians do not give the impression they can solve the problem – apart from Angela Merkel, but she only gives the impression.”

His reference to “values” means, among other things, that most of the refugees are Muslim. Even before the Paris attacks, Rüdiger Safranski, a German writer who has published books on Schiller, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger, spoke for many Germans when he warned in an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag:

“Political Islam, as it manifests itself in the majority of the states of the near East, is a complete disaster. Islam as a religion is not the danger, but the political order which it today brings forth. Many carry this political Islam with them, and thereby in Germany for example anti-semitism, and certainly the Islamic anti-semitism, will become powerful. In France that is already discernible, there the Jews no longer feel safe. Many of the Muslims do not know what it means to respect another religion. One has forgotten that on the refugee boats, Christians were thrown into the water. In refugee camps, ethnic and religious groups fight against each other, and are already bringing their enmities, the cause of their own flight, into our country. The division between religion and state is to them understandably unknown. The young men bring their macho behaviour with them, bring violence with them, which is bad for everyone, but especially for women.”

My purpose here is not to agree with Safranski. The point of quoting his outburst is to illustrate how alarmed many Germans are, and how ready they are to see Muslims as a mortal threat to Jews, Christians, women and the western conception of politics.

One of the paradoxes of this situation is that Germany already contains many more immigrants than the Germans themselves recognise. As Professor Christine Langenfeld, who chairs the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, said in a report earlier this year:

Germany has joined the ranks of progressive immigration countries in an international comparison. The result is not consistent with Germany’s own perception of itself in the public discourse. We are better than we think… Germany’s self- image as an immigration country…needs to be reinforced.ʺ

The same point was made in more fiery language in the Berliner Zeitung by Jagoda Marinic, a writer born in Stuttgart in 1977 to Croatian parents. She pointed out that one in three of the inhabitants of west German cities is of immigrant descent, and the time has come to recognise this, not remain silent about it.

Kohl used to declare that Germany, and indeed Europe, are part of Christendom, which meant Turkey could not be allowed to join the European Union. He insisted that Germany is not “an immigration country”, and he ignored the arrival of large numbers of immigrants in West Germany.

In 1999, the law was changed to make it much easier for these immigrants, and their children, to acquire German citizenship. So it is possible that Merkel is placing herself on the winning side of this argument.

Opinion polls show the country is split down the middle. But they also show the Christian Democrats losing ground, and Alternative for Germany, which takes a harder attitude to these things, in double figures for the first time. And other European countries have declined to show solidarity on the refugee question with Merkel. She suddenly looks isolated, and the chances that she will retire in the near future have greatly increased.

Her most likely replacement is Schäuble, confined to a wheelchair since an attempt on his life in 1990, but respected even by his opponents as a man of formidable intellect and grip.

Like Merkel, and indeed like most Germans, Schäuble will be determined if at all possible to keep Britain in the EU. It is now over 60 years since Konrad Adenauer said the Germans did not wish to be “left alone with the more or less hysterical French”, but the sentiment still applies. Nor is the new Polish government viewed with joy from Berlin. Some Germans are starting to realise that “ever closer union” may be an illusion.

But Schäuble is no push-over. We should not imagine Germany is about to be transformed into a nation state of a Gaullist disposition. The Germans are in the midst of a very long process of discovering what it means to be German, and on their answer to that question will depend the future of Europe.