Germany and Europe: 1989, 2009…2029

Twenty years on, the chessboard is shaking once again

The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 is being commemorated around the world. A flood of articles, broadcasts, conferences and books are  re-examining the events, retelling the stories, and reviewing the outcomes of that unforgettable moment. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany itself, the heart of the symbolic occasion when an old order ended.

But amid the celebrations of the past there are also doubts about the future. Where does Germany now stand in relation to Europe; how committed is the country to the European project; how much are nationalist sentiments again on the rise?

A simple answer is that twenty years after the Berlin wall’s collapse there is a German problem. But it is not nationalism. Rather, Germany has become self- centred. Germany no longer wants to lead the European Union in the way it did in the past.

The Federal Republic of Germany had a symbiotic relationship to Europe. European integration was mainly done for Germany and by Germans. West Germany, as it was before unification in October 1990, lubricated the European system with three elements: a strong Franco-German political and institutional engine (which also offered an advocacy-voice for the smaller member-states), and strong support for the European commission and the European parliament.

After its recovery from the ruins of the second world war got underway in the 1950s, Germany assumed the chief responsibility of running the European system. The country managed to sustain a form of sublimated hegemony on EU issues until 1989, and the newly united Germany contributed further to Europe’s integration by delivering the Maastricht treaty in 1992. It has, moreover, got its money’s worth – Germany is the EU’s biggest financial beneficiary of the single market and the euro. 

The next twenty

But both Europe and Germany itself have changed a lot in these twenty years. The new Germany no longer “carries” the European integration-project the way it used to. The reasons are twofold: capacity-related and political. The capacity issue is easily stated: twenty years on from 1989, Germany is poorer and older. 

The political context is more complicated. It can be conveyed by noting how the German “tone” towards Europe has changed. The wording of the German constitutional court’s ruling on the Lisbon treaty on 30 June 2009, which mentions “national sovereignty” all over the place, is symptomatic of the shift. The Karlsruhe-based court is here reflecting a process that started in the years when Angela Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schröder was chancellor (1998-2005). Even a successful six-month presidency of the European Union in January-June 2007 did not reverse the trend. Today, Euro-critics have even become “chic” in Germany.

It is significant too that Germany has lost its sensitivity about how the outside world perceives its political and economic decisions. Even worse, Germany seems no longer to care about the practical impact of its decisions on its neighbours. Throughout the country, the same reflex view can be heard: “Germany is less European? So what! Germany is an export-champion and wants a seat in the United Nations security council. At last, Germany is German again!”

It is symptomatic of these changes that the new generation of German politicians is no longer being educated into the old “semantics” of the European Union. The relationship between Bonn (later Berlin) and Paris was for a long time the union’s backbone. But these days, many Germans see Franco-German relations as just something to pay lip-service to. France is no longer the “indispensable nation” for Germany; Germany industrial companies, for example, prefer to deal directly with their Russian rather than their French counterparts. More broadly, many in Germany believe that the country does not need Europe when it comes to energy-security or policy towards Russia; and do not see that its needs are served by the entry of Balkan states or Turkey to the European Union.

The final ratification of the Lisbon treaty in January 2010 (after the decision of the Czech Republic’s constitutional court on 3 November 2009) will thus open yet another challenge for the European Union. The logic of Europe’s new constitutional settlement is that it needs a strong European diplomatic service able to implement key strategic goals: an embracing neighbourhood policy; an engaged new round of enlargement; an open but tough stance on Russia; and a truly integrated European energy-market.

Germany’s history and the strong influence the country still has in Europe (and indeed in the rest of the world) means that it will play a central role in how far Europe can make progress on these issues and more. It is up to the new German government how European the new Germany becomes – and ultimately, how successful the European Union will be in the next two decades of the 21st century.


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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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