Paradigm lost: A post-Merkel Germany in a post-Kohl Europe

If Europe isn’t what it used to be, this is largely because Germany isn’t what it long wanted to be.

It can be felt in Berlin, in Brussels, and in many other capitals around the European Union: Europe isn’t what it used to be. As the geopolitical winds have turned and blown into the faces of European leaders, confidence in their ability to address challenges as a union is running low. Europe is not the robust shield they declared it to be, but is exposed, vulnerable, and largely defenceless. Europeans seem to be divided by a common institutional framework rather than united under pressure. Faced with a surge of sovereigntist thinking, the EU has suffered a crisis of identity. This time, the soul-searching is not about the finalité of integration, but about its purpose. Yet Europe’s identity crisis can’t be understood without looking at Germany: once the champions of an “ever closer union of the peoples of Europe”, the Germans appear to have lost their compass due to changes in Berlin’s status in Europe and the mounting difficulties of developing the acquis communautaire.

If Europe isn’t what it used to be, this is largely because Germany isn’t what it long wanted to be. The key question now seems to be: how much longer can there remain the current gap between the challenges to Europe’s integrity, prosperity, and security on the one hand, and Berlin’s ultra-pragmatic, status quo-minded course of non-action on the other?

The road to a post-Kohl Europe

True to German policy on Europe from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl, today’s Germany should want the EU to assert its sovereignty vis-à-vis other global players rather than lose sovereignty because member states have withheld or repatriated powers from the union. This Germany would want the EU to shape events rather than adapt to them – and to multiply the power of its member states (including Germany) rather than engage in counterbalancing and containment among them.

The Europe Germany would want if it hadn’t given up on deeper integration would see the euro as the currency of all member states. This Europe would have EU fiscal authority over national debt, a single financial market with a common rulebook, and a budget large enough to shape economic development across the entire union.

It would have an integrated approach to migration, involving a single immigration and asylum law, a common migration agency that handled all requests, a European fund for integration, and a common border force and coast guard – all jointly funded by member states.

In such a Europe, Germany would work with other member states to defend itself against any aggression from the outside, pooling their diverse resources as effectively as possible through: gradual force integration, the development of commonly owned and funded military assets, a common procurement scheme, and a single defence market and export regime.

Such a Europe would necessarily pursue a much more integrated foreign and security policy, to politically manage its responsibilities and means.

However, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany seems to have given in to the status quo, preferring erosion out of inaction to disruption out of ambition.

The ever closer Europe has stopped being a fantasy that Berlin’s political class entertains. And nobody else in Europe shares the dream anyhow: some support parts of the agenda but reject others; some oppose the direction of travel on principle while others do so because of its “Germanness”. There is no realistic prospect for moving ahead on such an agenda. Thus, the reasonable option seems to be to patiently manage the status quo, pragmatically adding bits of substance here and there when the situation allows.

This isn’t the full picture, though. In all honesty, the agenda for “more Europe” would also fail to win a majority in the German political class today – or even among German voters, despite their rather positive attitudes towards European integration. The Germans continue to like “more Europe” as a distant vision, but reject it as an operational strategy. The German elite has developed a taste for a national approach to the European agenda – which, conveniently, it can pursue while using widespread doubt about the feasibility of deeper integration as cover. The national approach puts the defence of one’s own short-term interests over presumed European interests; it helps fend off spending demands from others.

To be sure, pursuing a policy based on Germany’s national interest and strengthening Germany’s national means could be a new strategy for steering and advancing European integration. In this scenario, Berlin would demonstrate its ability to act independently of the EU – something that it could, in practical terms, articulate in the areas of foreign, security, and defence policy because of their low level of integration within the union. Although costly in financial and political terms, this much more capable Germany might scare its European partners into wanting deeper integration. Germany spearheading the centrifugal trend within Europe may be too much for even critics of deeper integration to ignore. In 1989, after the Berlin Wall came down, the possibility of a more independent united Germany alone was enough to trigger member states’ desire to strengthen their ties with one another. However, in 2020, that reaction would likely not be strong enough. Kohl used other European countries’ manifest fear of Germany to advance the integration agenda his government was committed to. Today, Merkel would not want to foster such fear of Germany as she sees nothing to be gained from it – meaning that it would just raise the transaction costs for Berlin in Europe.

Germany after Merkel

If the EU has, therefore, entered a post-Kohl state of integration fatigue, the question remains: what will post-Merkel Germany do about it? As her final term reaches the halfway mark, it has become clear that this coalition government will not break with the overarching policy patterns of recent years. The chancellor is not looking to burnish her legacy with last-minute initiatives. And the privileged position Europe took up in the coalition agreement between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats was designed to provide the latter with an indisputable reason to change course and enter government once again. The fact that a German is at the helm of the European Commission for the first time in decades will not change this. Ursula von der Leyen would require robust, consistent, and multilateral support from EU governments to become a strong Commission president, but her role in German politics is already too weak to align Berlin with Brussels.

Whoever leads the next German government, post-Merkel Germany will not find a way back to the country’s integrationist legacy. That chapter of German history seems to have closed in the Merkel years. Germany also does not appear to be geared towards a strong national approach to its European and international role. The next German government will either lack the political will or the consensus to significantly enhance Germany’s power in international affairs. New people will mean fresh faces and possibly different rhetoric, but German foreign policy will continue to be shaped by continuity more than anything else. Germany will not act as Europe’s internal federator. And it would take a major external shock to upset Berlin’s pragmatic inclinations.

Germans continue to like “more Europe” as a distant vision, but reject it as an operational strategy.

The paradigm of an “ever closer union” has been lost in German and European politics. German leaders have given up on the concept. Emmanuel Macron may purport to defend it, but the Gaullist ingredients of his own Europe strategy weaken his claim. David Cameron was far behind the curve when he demanded that the phrase be scrapped from the United Kingdom’s EU treaty obligations. The Brexit his epigones triggered is out of touch with the present EU: Boris Johnson comes twenty years too late.

Each in their own way, Europe’s three largest and most powerful nations have brought the EU to the current state of stagnation and fragmentation. The old juxtaposition of Europe’s choices as being between progress or decline may be outdated. And the EU may be able to survive in its current state for quite a long time. But erosion will eventually take its toll. Europeans will be not shapers but observers of events – although this state of affairs may not become obvious or painful any time soon. The EU will become a fortress of sorts, because that is the only response to a changing world Europeans can agree on. But the protection the bloc’s outdated concept offers will be weak. The centrality of Europe in world affairs was lost in the wars of the twentieth century, for which Germany bears a special responsibility. Looking back from the year 2031 – when, according to Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany will have reached the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defence – it may have become clear that Europe’s return to the global stage was lost in the muddling through of the twenty-first century and, again, Germany bore a special responsibility for this.

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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