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Commentary | 31 July 2015

Bowling Alone: the limits of German power in Europe

Image of Josef Janning

Josef Janning |Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

EU Europe Foreign policy Germany Euro-Atlantic Security European Defence

The paradox of Germany’s current role in Europe results from the contradictions in the anticipations and expectations of its leadership. On the one hand, many in Europe (and beyond) want and ask for Germany to take the lead, while the political class in Berlin seems reluctant to fully accept the responsibilities that come with such a role. On the other hand, many in Europe (and beyond) complain about German dominance, or in stronger terms a German hegemony or dictate, while Berlin believes itself to be acting in the same way as most other EU Member States, i.e. putting its national interest at the centre of its EU policy.

The paradox runs deeper however. Many calls for German leadership are in fact calling for a Germany that seeks to deepen integration, for which it would need allies, and would be willing to compromise politically and financially in order to secure support. Most of those making these calls do not seem prepared to consider deeper integration themselves. At the same time, neither the German elite nor the public show much enthusiasm for deeper integration either. Integration minded actors in Berlin, such as the Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, or to a lesser degree the Minister of Economics, Sigmar Gabriel, are painfully aware of both these domestic and European constraints.

Against the background of the current level of integration, Berlin is also aware that any deepening of integration would imply more of a “German Europe”, not primarily because of the expectations among the German public, but rather for reasons of substance. More Europe on the basis of an Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) could include a Eurozone budget, a partial pooling of budgetary power of national Parliaments, bond financed investment schemes and elements of shared social security provisions. However, these steps would be conditioned on the deepening of a policy framework, which would further strengthen a rules based policy approach, require a higher complementarity of governance among EU countries, set the bar of compliance higher than before, and reduce the margins of political discretion for all participating Member States. While it might be possible to develop a common approach on this between Paris and Berlin, such a scenario could well fail to win the support from both smaller Eurozone members in the EU’s northeast and from large and small EU countries south of the Alps.

In some ways, the hegemony narrative of German leadership reads like the reverse echo of the policy dilemma sketched out above. Berlin is accused of using its weight to impose a German agenda on the EU, and it does so when seeking change (as with the fiscal compact and other elements of Eurozone governance reform) or when defending the status quo, such as with the insistence on fiscal conditionality and the Troika approach. This view expects German policy makers to stick to the old equation of the German national interest with a rather diffusely defined European interest, neglecting the degree to which the political environment of the EU has changed. Though a rational longer-term definition of the German interest would still put Europe at the centre (as was reaffirmed in the conclusions drawn from the German foreign affairs review conducted by the Auswärtiges Amt), the responsiveness of Germany’s European milieu has weakened significantly. Apart from the Franco-German relationship, the other pillars of Germany’s support structure in the EU have either fallen apart or changed in substance. The core consensus of the “old” EU, most visibly embodied in the informal coalition of the founding members, does not exist any longer. Fragmentation prevails when looking at reform coalitions on the EU’s budget and policies, on trade, the environment, or the missing pieces of the single market.

Essentially, Germany today acts in the EU like many, if not most, other EU countries, taking an instrumental approach of the community instead of a principled one. The difference is one of size and weight. A Germany that says “No”, to paraphrase the Japanese author-politician Ishihara, carries more weight than the empty-chair policy of De Gaulle’s France in the 1960s, precisely because Berlin is neither abstaining nor turning away from the EU. The Germans remain engaged, but seek less to advance integration. Angela Merkel’s government not only accepted intergovernmentalism as the major tool to govern the EU, and also to control its community institutions, Germany’s EU policy seems to be built on shaping integration through the interaction among Member States.

The Chancellor has little liking for thinking big. Her approach is pragmatic, step-by-step, responding to pressures and crises as they arise. Merkel’s red line appears to be to counter disintegration, be it on the integrity of the Eurozone or on foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia. In this, she has agreed change in the direction of “more Europe”, mostly regarding the EMU. But she has done so in a fashion that keeps her in control of the process in the eye of the German public, fulfilling another one of her objectives, not to irritate voters, and not to see high ambitions being shot down by parliamentary defeat or referenda in some other member states.

Those in German politics thinking about European integration are convinced that a further deepening will become necessary, if only to deliver on the promise of Eurozone crisis management, which was built on the assumption of subsequent consolidation under the treaties. However, they have no strong answer to Merkel’s scepticism about the feasibility of a leap forward. The Chancellor has no desire for failing big.

Without Germany as a driver for more integration, current intergovernmentalism will continue to shape the state of integration with its bazaar-type negotiations, its horse- trading and arm-twisting. In the absence of enabling pro-integration coalitions of large and smaller Member States, the optimisation of Member State benefits has become the new common good of the EU. Germany’s EU policy is not trying to reverse that development, but rather seeking to protect its stakes and defend the status quo from eroding further. What Berlin actors are pushing aside is the thought that it could be just that approach of Germany to Europe, which will advance erosion instead of stopping it. German leadership may be a necessary precondition to revive the integration process, but is surely not a sufficient one. It needs an idea about “better Europe” that could be shared and it needs committed partners, which won’t come about without a partnership effort. Though European integration has been built as a genuinely new type of cooperation among states, as it turns out, it has not sublimated the old dilemma of Germany in Europe – being too large to not affect Europe, but lacking the power to dominate it. Thus, Germany’s strength will block the EU unless and until it becomes a pillar in a governing coalition.



The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.