Germany then and now

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany needs to think about its way of exercising power within the EU – and what it hopes to achieve.

A generation ago, the Berlin wall fell. With it went the geopolitical environment to which German foreign policy had almost perfectly adapted. Twenty-five years later, Germany seems more powerful in its European context than it ever has been before – but much less purposeful. Leaders such as François Mitterand, Margaret Thatcher, and Giulio Andreotti anticipated that German unification would lead to German power, and so viewed the prospect with scepticism. This point of view has been confirmed, but not in the way the leaders expected. Germany did not cut its ties with the European Union, but Berlin has phased out its ambitions towards deeper integration.

Berlin seems to be comfortable with the degree to which re-nationalisation and intergovernmentalism has taken over the EU, not least because it underlines Germany’s singular position in European affairs. At the same time, Germany seems reluctant to be more active in wielding power internationally, shying away from both the risks and costs of greater responsibility. In doing so, Berlin risks weakening European integration and damaging its own positive international reputation.

Twenty-five years later, Germany appears to be more powerful in its European context than ever before, but much less purposeful.

On 8 November 1989, Germany was divided. Both East Germany and West Germany were located at the front line of the Cold War. Each of the German states had the largest conventional army and highest density of military deployments of their respective alliances, next to the lead power. Each had developed the largest economy in their respective neighbourhoods.

The Federal Republic of Germany, in the 40 years since its founding, had assumed a remarkable position in international affairs. The Bonn Republic was considered a model member of the European Community, strongly committed to its success and actively seeking to advance integration. Its political class favoured the “community method” of integration; its diplomats were strong supporters of further developing the European Political Cooperation (EPC) into a common foreign and security policy. When, in early 1988, negotiations over the single market programme became deadlocked, Germany’s willingness to put up extra funding made a deal possible. Shortly afterwards, the “Genscher memorandum” sketched out the way towards European Monetary Union.

Germany and France were the motors of European integration, while Germany’s concern for the smaller states and its coalition-building capacity served as a welcome resource to balance France’s ambitions towards leadership. Bonn was also careful to keep the United Kingdom engaged.It was the German chancellor who gave in to Margaret Thatcher’s demands for a British rebate in 1984 in order to prevent stalling European integration, and it was the French and German taxpayers who had to shoulder the majority of additional transfers to Brussels to make up for Britain’s savings.

The Federal Republic of Germany, in the 40 years since its founding, had assumed a remarkable position in international affairs.

Konrad Adenauer prepared the grounds for eventual German unification by firmly anchoring West Germany in NATO and Europe. Willy Brandt complemented this approach with his vision of an all-European peace order, for which his Ostpolitik laid the foundations. Brandt sought a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union, using the window of opportunity opened by the détente policies of the superpowers.He built a new relationship with Poland based on a spirit of reconciliation and the recognition of existing borders. And he concluded an agreement on bilateral relations with the German Democratic Republic, ending 20 years of non-recognition, which opened the door to UN membership for both German states. West Germany, in effect, skilfully utilised East Germany’s economic struggles and hard currency shortages to satisfy its demand for consumer goods for its population. The final act of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) of 1975 was also a triumph for German foreign policy.

Given the context of the time, the Federal Republic had achieved the best possible result – from having been an outcast in international affairs after the Holocaust and the Nazis’ tyranny in Europe, West Germany had become a respected member of Western and international institutions, an open society with a stable democracy. From a country devastated by the war with much of its industry and infrastructure destroyed or dismantled, West Germany had become one of the leading economies of the world. However, too often, many Germans forget that the country’s impressive reform efforts were enabled by Western underwriting, by the debt resettlement of the London Debt Agreement of 1953 and Marshall Plan aid, as well as Western support for the country’s democratic transformation.

From having been an outcast in international affairs after the Holocaust and the Nazis’ tyranny in Europe, West Germany had become a respected member of Western and international institutions, an open society with a stable democracy.

This is where Germany and German foreign policy were when the wall came down. Just one generation or 25 years after the turbulent events of the autumn of 1989, Germany and its foreign policy show remarkable differences, even if some earlier patterns seem to have remained. The title of the seminal study by Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, “Germany unified and Europe transformed”, summarises the major geopolitical shift that Germany took after 1990.

Germany has moved from the frontline to the centre, surrounded by its friends and partners in the EU and NATO. Allied military presence in Germany is barely noticeable. East German armed forces were dissolved after unification in 1990 and the Bundeswehr has been trimmed to half of its size in 1989. In spite of the huge costs generated by the breakdown of the East German economy, Germany continues to be the largest economy in the EU, 1.3 times bigger than the second largest economy, France. As the most important trade and investment partner of the EU member states in East Central Europe, Germany benefits greatly from the legal, institutional, and political framework of the EU.

Never in modern history has Germany enjoyed a more secure and more comfortable position in Europe. On the other hand, contrary to expectations within Germany, the “German question” of European order has not been answered; rather, it has returned in its original form as the question about the role and place of Germany in Europe.

Never in modern history has Germany enjoyed a more secure and more comfortable position in Europe.

Former President Richard von Weizsäcker famously declared that the German question would remain open as long as the Brandenburg Gate remained closed. Twenty-five years after that gate was thrown wide open, the question of how to reconcile Germany’s size and weight within Europe still has not been resolved.

Germany has become the indispensable power in the EU, but it is now significantly less integration-minded. This has changed the political climate in Europe to an extent that could cause the EU to fail entirely. The former German foreign minister from the early 2000s, Joschka Fischer, as well as the former chancellor from the 1990s, Helmut Kohl, though coming from opposite sides of the German political spectrum, have both published books this autumn expressing exactly this fear: Germany’s failure to move Europe’s integration ahead could destroy exactly that which Germany seeks to preserve.

While it does not altogether reject deepening integration, German policy today is more aimed at protecting its own immediate interests, at limiting its commitments, and at opposing further transfers of sovereignty to Brussels. Intergovernmental levers, notably the European Council, have become the principal tool for steering EU policy. Along these lines, today’s Germany is not actively seeking to build a fiscal union on top of EMU, nor is Berlin interested in building a “core Europe” as was proposed in 1994 by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and then parliamentarian Karl Lamers. Also, Germany under Angela Merkel’s leadership is not advocating further enlargement of the EU to the east to include either Ukraine or Turkey in any foreseeable future.

Germany’s failure to move Europe’s integration ahead could destroy exactly that which Germany seeks to preserve.

On foreign and security policy, Germany regularly reaffirms the goals of strengthening the EU’s processes and institutions, but it does very little to back up its rhetoric. Despite the ongoing transformation of its armed forces, Germany has made no moves to integrate with other member states (as it could under the treaty clause on a permanent structured cooperation), nor has it allocated more resources to defence. And it lags behind its NATO partners in the adaptation of its legal framework to current operational requirements.

As Jan Techau has observed, the three elements that were previously seen as the essentials of Germany’s EU policy are being neglected by Berlin, if not entirely abandoned: firstly, a “rock-solid” idea of what the EU should be; secondly, the willingness to spend more if needed to advance integration; and thirdly, the resolve to nurture relations with the EU’s smaller member states.

On all three counts, the balance sheet looks poor.

If there is still an idea of the EU’s finalité alive in Berlin, it is now hidden in a fog of pragmatism. Germany has lost its willingness to pay more or to share the burden within the EU framework, and with it, a major resource for forging European compromises has disappeared. The other driver of integration, the Franco-German partnership, has reached a low point, and Berlin is making no moves to create an alternative coalition with its smaller, affluent EU neighbours.

The three elements that were previously seen as the essentials of Germany’s EU-policy are being neglected by Berlin, if not abandoned.

To be sure, the current German approach matches the preferences of the German public. Angela Merkel has had high approval ratings at home throughout the crises of recents years and most Germans agree with the chancellor’s line in the management of the sovereign debt crisis. On the other hand, her pragmatism has led to a strategy of leading from behind, using Germany’s pivotal position in financial rescue operations to enforce Merkel’s preference of a national response to the crisis. Unlike previous chancellors, Merkel did not use the crisis to deepen integration through a pooling of fiscal powers at the EU level.

Earlier German generosity has not been in evidence. Whereas the Federal Republic had benefited from a 50 percent debt reduction in the London Debt Agreement of 1953, today’s Germany has rejected any mutualisation of debt for its EU partners. Berlin has also not been keen on proposals to issue common bonds or to create new means of fiscal solidarity, such as an EU-wide unemployment insurance scheme.

To be fair, the continued debate about the German role in Europe reflects not just German policy but also the new environment within which it operates. Given Germany’s pivotal role in the EU, both factors likely reinforce each other. At some point following the turn of the twenty-first century, possibly after the failure of the European Constitution and the subsequent negotiations towards the Lisbon Treaty, the momentum for integration was lost. Since then, intergovernmentalism has gained the upper hand in EU policymaking. But unlike a generation ago, today’s Germany has not fought against the weakening of forces for integration. Over the past decade, populist and Eurosceptic parties have emerged in many member states, including Germany, and succeeded in influencing the national discourse, further strengthening the pragmatic, step-by-step approach of Merkel’s approach to Europe.

To be sure, the current German approach lines up with the preferences of the German public.

Obviously, the milieu of Germany’s EU policy has changed too. France has largely given up its quest for leadership in the EU, the UK has moved to the political fringes of the integration discourse, and there is no longer anything like a consensus group within the founding members. As a consequence of greater heterogeneity following eastern enlargement, political fragmentation has increased. But while the Germany of the past might have worked against these developments, today’s Berlin feels strong enough to secure its preferences alone or through case-by-case coalitions.

Stronger state, weaker partner

In 1989, West Germany had arrived at the peak of its international role in the circumstances of the time. Twenty-five years later, while widely acknowledged as Europe’s foremost power, united Germany still punches below its weight. As hesitant as many EU member states would be about German leadership in the EU, its absence has become a problem. Former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski pinpointed this in his famous 2011 Berlin speech: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.“

Sikorski did not want Germany to “dominate, but to lead in reform” towards a more federal Europe in response to the crisis. Merkel’s Germany, on the other hand, prefers the next step approach to any longer-term vision and relies on intergovernmental bargaining.

The former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski pinpointed this in his famous 2011 Berlin speech: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.“

In this environment, Germany dominates because its consent is indispensable. However, its leadership is negative rather than proactive, built around Berlin’s ability to block options by denying agreement or support. Genuine leadership would come at a price that neither the political class nor the public seems willing to pay. As an illustration, to shore up its leadership of the intergovernmental structures of NATO, the United States is spending about 2.5 times more for its defence force than all of the EU states combined. Compared to that, Germany’s pre-eminence in the EU comes at almost no cost.

As Hans Kundnani has observed in his book, The Paradox of German Power, the short-termism of Germany’s response to the sovereign debt crisis and its refusal to lead Europe towards deeper integration has produced instability where leadership (or hegemony) is expected to provide stability. Though Merkel’s response seems to have calmed the storm over member state credit ratings, the result is only a superficial stability. Underneath, the cleavages have deepened between the north and the south, between Germany and France, between Germany and Italy, and between the centre and the periphery. Mistrust has grown among leaders and their publics. Against its will and its interests, German pragmatism and lack of leadership in reform could turn out to be the last straw for a struggling EU.

To live up to its current power and to prevent a further rise of the disintegrative potential of the German question, Germany’s foreign policy – and especially its EU dimension – needs to change. The political class and the public will have to make a decision whether to move ahead into a looser form of EU integration governed primarily by consensus in the European Council, or to advance integration towards political union with more powers in the fiscal and social fields and additional layers of solidarity. Both options have their own sets of costs and risks, making them both unappealing to the current German leadership. But the strategy of waiting it out is untenable. A choice needs to be made, and it must be hoped that in searching for the way forward, Germany might learn something from looking back some 25 years. 

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


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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