Germany leads Europe: Jettisoning the status quo

The German question has emerged again, but this time, the answer will depend on whether Germany is willing to embrace its role as an agent of change.

Germany is rightly praised in the European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2015 for assuming more leadership in the diplomacy of the European Union. However, Berlin’s new foreign policy role (just like its engagement in solving the euro crisis) is still fragile and is based upon vulnerable domestic foundations. The reason is that Germany’s new responsibility means taking the lead in overturning a status quo that it would prefer to preserve.

Berlin currently enjoys an unequalled position of power in Europe, and for many, the euro crisis has reignited the “German question”: Germany again faces an old dilemma, as a country that is too large for Europe but too small to succeed without the help of its partners. British historian Timothy Garton Ash, for one, wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2013 that the real question for Germany and for Europe was how to use Germany’s immense potential to benefit Europe instead of burdening it. But there seems to be no consensus on the precise nature of the question this time around: Europe’s future hinges on Germany’s decision about its direction, but what does Germany want and how can it achieve it?

Germany’s new responsibility means taking the lead in overturning a status quo that it would prefer to preserve

The Russian crisis has created a new twist to the German question. Some observers believe the crisis puts Germany’s alliance with the West at stake. This claim is supported by, among other things, a surveyconducted in April 2014 by German public broadcaster ARD, which found that 49 percent of Germans wanted their country to take on the role of a negotiator between Russia and the West, whereas just 45 percent would side with the West.

Many different messages have come from Germany on Russia and Ukraine over the past 12 months: shameful statements from mostly grey-haired representatives of the political elite who seem never to tire of finding justifications for Russia’s conduct; tedious attempts at negotiation by the German government; and some excellent speeches by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sydney and by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Yekaterinburg. This diversity of German voices, combined with the general public’s divided opinions, evidenced uncertainties and sometimes helplessness, but also testified to a struggle with this new reality. It would, however, be wrong to assume that the confusion means that Germany is turning away from the West or returning to the German question in the way it was once discussed.

The basic issue at the core of the German question used to be that Germany simply was not able to come to terms with its status quo. It wanted either a better place in the sun, more living space (Lebensraum, as it was called during the Nazi era), or just – in a peaceful way – national unity, justice, and freedom. For Germany to achieve any of these goals, Europe’s political framework would have had to be completely changed. But today, the exact opposite is the case. When the “German shift to the West” was complete, and even more so since the end of the last century, Germany settled in so well into the status quo that its role in European and foreign politics changed – almost undetected – from that of a change agent to that of a power for continuance.

This shift was no wonder: the pillars of the “Europe of Maastricht” were shaped to a large extent by Berlin (including the concept of the European Central Bank, the culture of fiscal stability, and the politics of enlargement), and the new system appeared to offer ideal conditions for the development of Germany’s economy and power. And up until the European financial and economic crisis, this was true: the second German Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle, along with Germany’s growth in influence, was due not just to the German government’s Agenda 2010 reform series, but also to the benefits that came from a “German Europe”. Moreover, the era of globalisation, interdependence, and multilateralism presented the perfect conditions for the “geoeconomic power”of the German export nation. It became easy to “outsource” security policy, the more so as NATO continued its expansion to the east. The climate was one that Germany would have been happy to see continue.

The second German economic miracle was due not just to the German government’s Agenda 2010 reform series, but also to the benefits that came from a “German Europe”

However, the euro crisis and the Russian crisis have now undermined the status quo’s foundation and, as a result, have raised the new German question. Suddenly, the country that shaped the status quo and adjusted to it like no other faces the challenge of overcoming the status quo – above all thanks to its newly gained power and the weakness of its partners. This is just as true for the problems of the eurozone as for policy towards Russia. Both cases demonstrate not the rise of a German Europe, but its failure. Institutions and policies that previously almost perfectly met German expectations are now in need of a redesign. And in both cases, unavoidably and painfully, Germany as a status quo power is being forced to take on a leading role in shaping a new system and new policies. A eurozone in which the Central Bank combats deflation instead of inflation, in which permanent bailout instruments have been drawn up, and in which the fiscal pact has turned into a laughing stock is truly not a German Europe. The new German question is not about a break from the West or from the European path, but about leaving behind a cherished status quo. This explains Berlin’s often awkward behaviour on the international stage and the confusion among observers of German foreign policy. 

Germany must face the music, but it will not be an easy task. With its economic model and its obsession with exports, Germany is isolated within Europe (and not without good reason). During the euro crisis, therefore, it restrained its ambitions and focused on saving the status quo’s last remnants – the fiscal rules. But in doing so, it had to witness its other key principles being thrown overboard.

The Russian crisis caused a loss of faith in the principles of change by integration, convergence, and trade, which Germany once believed were the basis for it to use its potential most efficiently and which had eventually also become a benchmark for European policy. This sudden ending of the status quo was not easy for Berlin to take – and the German government deserves all the more admiration and respect for how it has managed since last summer to unite Europe on a resolute and responsible policy towards Russia and Ukraine.

The new German question is not about a break from the West or from the European path, but about leaving behind a cherished status quo

Hans Kundnani pointed out correctly in Foreign Affairs that (unlike during the Cold War) Germany’s alliance with the West has become more a matter of choice than of necessity  – not least thanks to its strong economic relations with non-European powers, and first and foremost, with China. It remains doubtful, however, whether this is sufficient cause to warn of an imminent risk of a split between Berlin and the West and the United States. A more important question seems to be whether Germany is prepared to take on more responsibility in post-American Europe. In 2014, Germany finally assumed the leadership of the EU’s foreign policy, argues the European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2015. In 17 areas, Berlin provided guidance and/or pushed for European joint actions. Where Germany was absent, the EU did not perform well. Against the backdrop of the Russian crisis and faced with the new reality in Europe and all over the world, it is by no means unreasonable to hope that Germany could return to the role of a change agent – but this time, for the benefit of its neighbours and partners.

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


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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