Happy Birthday, New Germany!

The New Germany turns twenty this weekend. The country is rightly celebrating unification, and the economic success that has followed. But Berlin seems unable to cope with the new pivotal role in Europe that stems from its success story. Instead of looking for somebody else to write the script for Europe, New Germany needs to take responsibility and help the EU establish a global role.

Between 1949 and 1989, Germany had been the benign hegemon of Europe. Supported by the US and pressed by the legacy of World War II, Germany fuelled the system of European integration through four instruments: a strong Franco-German motor, an advocacy-position towards the smaller countries, a strong say over the Commission and, later, a control of the European Parliament.

Germany bought power for money, especially the power to shape the European system at large – most importantly the single market and the euro – along its own concepts and took significant benefit out of this. It also made sure that widening and deepening of the EU went in synch. In doing so, Germany (in contrast to France, let alone the UK) was the only large country of Europe that was truly integrationist and, thus, the centre pillar of the EU. In a nutshell: Germany made its ‘raison d’état’ out of Europe.

Europe and Germany have changed…

But the EU has changed and become bigger, more complex and slower. This perception has profoundly changed the German benefit-balance with respect to Europe. Working its interests through the EU system has become too tiring and too expensive for Germany.

Equally, also Germany has changed. While economically successful, the country has placed itself into a ‘victim’s role’ as European paymaster. The foreign policy paradigms of the old federal Republic are no longer valid – whether for its economic, juridical and intellectual elites (including German media) or for a young generation of new policy leaders. Germany shows more interest in trading with the BRIC countries than respecting the needs of the other Europeans economies. It is going global with or without its fellow Europeans, feeling unable to do anything else to secure its own economic survival. And, it will not change its export driven growth strategy, which is good for Germany, but dysfunctional for Europe at large. This is the difficult situation Europe is in, and, in a way, it’s nobody’s fault. But the problem is that a political meta-project like Europe cannot be built against the forces of economic gravity!

It seems as if a German goliath is currently changing the old Maastricht- and Yalta- orders of European economic and, hence, also security policies. This does not happen by intention, or because of a ‘nationalist’ master-plan in Berlin. It happens first and foremost because Germany is simply substituting European and foreign policy for its trade policy. But Germany is not the only one responsible for the current state of the Europeans Union. The diseases of nationalist and centrifugal forces – including the rise of populism – have spread all over the European Union. It is fair to argue that the mental German withdrawal from Europe is a reaction to the previous French, Dutch, British, Hungarian or Italian withdrawal from Europe. The Europe-consensus held longer in Germany than elsewhere.

…and need to change even more

Germany will also be key to reverse this anti-Europe trend, simply because it is the biggest and economically most important country of the EU. New Germany wants to strike a new deal with the rest of Europe on who pays what in post Maastricht-Europe. This is the essential question that will be brokered in Brussels in the next month, first in negotiating the permanent structure of the EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility) which would be a clear step into a ‘union of solidarity’ and deeper economic integration; second in the negotiations about the financial framework. The driving force for post Maastricht Europe is no longer German history, but everybody’s economic and national interests.

Germany must also take Europe along, when moving out of the old Yalta-order. Together, they can promote a new security structure for the whole Eurasian continent, allowing an assertive and responsible Europe to grow out of the former ‘West’ and constitute a ‘pole’ on its own in an increasingly multi-polar world, preparing to ultimately speak with one voice and to defend its security interests alone.

The German birthday challenge is to make this happen, instead of trying to go global alone, putting the Euro at risk, shying away from European responsibility and, thus, torpedoing the potential of a global Europe. Yet, as it celebrates twenty years of unity, Berlin is seemingly still looking for somebody else to write the script!


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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