Europe needs more than management from Germany

Germany’s aversion to political vision used to be a blessing. Now it’s becoming a curse.

When I arrived in Berlin seven months ago, Angela Merkel was German chancellor, leading a CDU-SPD grand coalition government. Now that I am preparing to leave Berlin again, Angela Merkel has just been elected as chancellor, and her CDU-SPD cabinet is beginning its work.

In French, there is a saying: ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose’ – meaning that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Germany, however, it seems the opposite is true – ‘plus c’est la même chose, plus ca change’. We may have the same government and the same chancellor as before, but a great deal has changed.

I came to Berlin to cover the election in September. The idea was to turn to other things afterwards, but unexpectedly, the process of government formation dragged out for the duration of my stay.

It has been an interesting time: Germans are not used to, or made for, political uncertainty. All my life, it has been very clear how things are supposed to work: every four years, on a Sunday, you go to vote, and when the clock strikes 6 pm, you know the election results – and quite often also the coalition and the chancellor. A coalition treaty is written, and things go on in much the same orderly fashion that they did before.

Not so this time. It took a record 169 days until a new coalition treaty was signed – the longest delay since 1949. Initial coalition talks between the CDU, the Liberals and the Greens, which would have given Germany a new, untested ‘Jamaika coalition’ broke down after four weeks of negotiations. When grand coalition talks between the CDU and SPD started, the SPD twice had to worry that their delegates and members would topple the talks. At times, it appeared as if my bet on British television that Angela Merkel would remain chancellor might be lost.

It was palpable in Berlin that the political establishment was unprepared for this situation. Some MPS thrived in the ambiguity, unbound by government requirements, and spent more time with their constituents. But many seemed lost and irritated.

Equally, the public which initially appeared excited about the possibility of political change, quickly became frustrated. The anti-establishment, right-wing AFD for even rose briefly to 16% in the polls– surpassing the SPD and becoming the second strongest party.

Six months later, we are now back where we started, with a Merkel-led grand coalition taking up its work. But what from the outside looks the same is very different internally.  

For one, the parliament that this grand coalition operates in looks very different to the previous one. There are two new entrants: the liberal FDP, which, after a four-year hiatus is back in the Bundestag, and the right-wing, eurosceptic AFD – the first far-right party to enter the German parliament since the Second World War. The AFD’s presence has already changed the tone in political discussions, and the CDU in particular struggles with how to face them.

Six months later, we are now back where we started, with a Merkel-led grand coalition taking up its work. But what from the outside looks the same is very different internally.

Other internal changes are abound. The German youthquake, led by the 28-year-old head of the SPD youth organisation, Kevin Kühnert, may have been unsuccessful in averting the grand coalition. But the discussion about the lack of young people in government that it created has already forced Merkel to include younger voices in her cabinet. One of them is Jens Spahn, 37-years old and incidentally one of Angela Merkel’s most important critics.

This brings us to the biggest change: Germany is now finally preparing for the post-Merkel era.

This term will be Merkel’s last, and both the CDU and SPD have begun to think about what comes next. This is about more than the next candidate. The SPD is struggling with the existential crisis of European Social Democrats that has already swallowed their comrades in France, Greece, the Netherlands, and Austria. The CDU has been the governing party for so long that it has forgotten how to do policy that goes beyond the immediately achievable. And it now faces the additional challenge of the AFD.

The Berlin I am leaving is thus different from the one I arrived in. It is more uncertain, it is more active, it is less boring. One thing, however, has not changed: the political class still lacks a vision for Germany’s international role in the 21st century.

Where does the road lead? No one knows.

Germany – its leaders as well as its people – does not know what kind of country it wants to be. Ironically the country that gave the world the word ‘leitmotiv’ does not seem to have one for itself. Germans take pride at having moved beyond ideologies – as captured by a quote attributed to former chancellor Helmut Schmidt: “People who have visions should go to see their doctor.”

But Schmidt said this in the 1970s, when the horrors of Nazi Germany were still recent, and when East Germany needed walls to keep people from escaping the devastating consequences of  the socialist grand vision. In other words, Germany’s aversion to political vision used to be a sensible choice. But it has become a fetish that is now hampering Germany’s ability to act in the new era.

For a long time Germany navigated around this problem by supporting the EU. This continues with the new government, which has made Europe its defining narrative. This reflects a genuine belief that ‘more Europe’ is required to address current challenges. But it also reflects an uncertain Germany passing the buck to Europe when it comes to vision. Merkel’s political style was always one of management as policy-ersatz. This government looks like it will practice Europe as policy-ersatz.

The problem is, the EU is struggling to formulate foreign policy positions too. On great power politics, the EU remains dependent on the US,  and struggles to find common positions. The international scene is increasingly uncertain and dangerous, and all the while eurosceptic voices are rising in many member states.

Germany’s main focus at the moment is keeping the EU-27 together. But beyond this, it has few ideas for where this EU should ultimately go. PESCO, the permanent structured cooperation on defence, is a good example. Germany overruled France’s preference for an ambitious, avantgarde group of participants, because Germany wanted to keep as many European partners as possible involved – thus rendering the whole idea largely useless.

The German position on the future of the Euro is also unclear. Rumours persist that Germany wants to install Jens Weidman as head of the European Central Bank when Mario Draghi’s term as president ends next year. Weidman is the head of the German Bundesbank, and known as the only member of the ECB’s governing council to oppose most of the measures that Draghi took to save the euro during the 2015 crisis. Outside Germany, commentators are questioning his understanding of “basic tenets of modern macroeconomics and central banking”. Installing Weidman as ECB head would be understood by many as a  statement that Germany does not care about the southern European Euro-members. But it is unclear whether this is in fact what Berlin intends.

So Germany finally has a government which, despite its familiar make-up, faces a markedly different political environment. This new environment will inevitably require changes in governance. My hope is that one of these changes will be more time thinking about Germany’s vision for Europe, rather than merely trying to hold it together.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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