In last week’s Note from Berlin, Josef Janning argued that over the past few years both Germany’s leading EU role as well as Berlin’s ability to leverage its power through the EU has seriously diminished. At the same time, the stakes for Berlin have risen. Despite its structural power at EU level, the coalition government has failed to come up with a sound response to two of its vital interests: Sustainable reform of the euro zone is pending, and Angela Merkel’s government is isolated when it comes to the refugee question. Both of these issues determine the country’s future, but if Berlin continues to fail at delivering EU-level solutions to these major questions, what will that mean for Germany’s EU orientation?
Both the euro and migration are major areas of policy, the overall direction of which will affect Germany’s economic future, and the prosperity and social cohesion of German society. For months, domestic tensions have been building up on the refugee question, and the aftermath of the events in Köln on New Year’s Eve have further complicated the domestic conversation. The difficult and rocky path to social integration of refugees that experts have pointed to for quite some time have become tangible for Germans in many ways. German society is currently facing some tough questions. Having said that, the mood in the country remains largely positive and people mostly have faith that Germany will be able to manage the situation. But what if numbers of arrivals into the country continue to rise, and Germans begin to increasingly feel that the social peace in their country is indeed being undermined? The euro, at least, is not making headlines for the time being, but the problem remains and has continued to simmer since the global financial and banking crisis started back in 2008. So far, euro zone members have only dealt with this issue partly, and it is not difficult to picture the moment in which the weakness of the economic and monetary union hits the agenda again with force.
The confluence of both challenges, the euro and migration, might ultimately turn out to be too much for even Angela Merkel’s chancellorship. However, the more important question centres on how policymakers (if they think beyond the logic of their own political survival) assess the potential impact on Germany’s prosperity and social cohesion, if these issues cannot be firmly resolved through their own interventions. Successive Merkel governments have invested deeply in the EU project, but in the current political climate, where many seem to feel frustrated that “the EU does not deliver”, the temptation to think beyond the EU is stronger than ever.
Such thinking is not a new phenomenon, with similar concerns and temptations having already been kindled (though mostly by outside commentators) during the peak of the euro zone crisis. In Germany the vast majority felt that such thoughts seemed misplaced or misguided. Who would seriously dare thinking about tearing down what has been part of Germany’s DNA since the Second World War? The Europakonsens, the traditional commitment to building an ever closer Union, and to accept compromises when the time came to it, seemed to be holding strong. But that is no longer the case, it seems. Weighed against both global opportunities and threats, European unity for Berlin seems no longer to be an objective in and of itself. Over the past few years, the overall assessment among Berlin’s political elites seems to have moved on. The current climate of opinion in Berlin is shaped by the feeling that Germany has spent years investing time and resources into keeping the Union together, despite frustration over the Union’s failure to deliver, the experience of being surrounded by an increasing number of internal and external conflicts, and indeed mounting domestic pressure. For how long will Germany be able to maintain the consensus that it is still worth investing in joint EU solutions, and at what cost? There is an increasing sense of impatience lacing conversations here in Berlin, and a common view that if only others were to take joint ownership, Germany would not be forced into going it alone now.
Let’s leave aside the important questions of who and what is to blame for the EU’s dire state. No doubt Berlin has to take part of the responsibility, but how far can Berlin’s tolerance level with the EU system stretch? What if the perceived and de facto weakness of common EU solutions amongst the euro zone and Schengen members makes Berlin fundamentally reassess its EU commitment? And how far down this path of has the government coalition gone already?
Clearly, we have seen signs lately that Berlin is willing to engage bilaterally. Relations with Turkey have become vital again against the backdrop of the refugee crisis and while Berlin attempts to portray the recent rapprochement with Ankara as part of a joint EU approach embedded in the enlargement framework, it seems increasingly clear is that this relationship is essentially bilateral and driven by security concerns. What does this mean for the EU’s Turkey policy, and for enlargement policy too?
Relations with the UK seem increasingly driven by Berlin’s conviction that a Brexit has to be avoided. When it comes to the crunch-point, how much will Berlin be willing to put on the table? There are signs that the assessment has started to change and Germany is ready to be more flexible. Another case in point is the changing role of the EU’s supranational institutions in German thinking. There is an increasing sense of opportunism vis-à-vis the European Commission, especially in relation to its role the refugee crisis. The Commission can be helpful to bring in other EU countries and help Germany look “European” in its approach to the refugee crisis. But to what extent is Germany still willing to make the case for a strong and independent Commission as a motor of integration and consensus for the whole Union, when it works on coalitions of the willing at the same time? Isn’t Berlin fundamentally changing the role of the Commission? Finally, there is the view that ultimately, Europeans working together can mean different things. Angela Merkel called it the “union method” in her 2010 Bruges speech. Her point of view is that it is no less European to work based on a logic of intergovernmentalism and of coalitions of member states. In this sense, Germany’s Europapolitik has become Realpolitik over the past few years. Where does this leave the Union? Not surprisingly, this issue is raised in Berlin on a regular basis by visitors from other European states.
There has been a strong consensus so far on Germany’s commitment to European integration. It is too early to conclude that this consensus no longer exists. However, there are signs that it is starting to crumble as the Union is no longer able to deliver on the powerful promise that has kept Germany committed and engaged in the EU project for the past decades. Germany has not wavered in its beliefs that the EU is ultimately much more than the sum of its parts, that the key to peace, prosperity and security for Germany, and indeed all countries in Europe, is found in European integration and supranational institutions, and that the EU is the way to keep the “German question” under control. At least until now.
A massive shift in German thinking on European integration is under way – one that has the potential to ultimately bring about not a different Union, but no Union at all.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.