Germany – Europe’s lonely leader

As instability and conflict grow in Europe’s neighbourhood, Germany’s leading EU role is diminished

By all measures, 2016 promises to be a challenging year for Germany’s political leaders, one in which the principal domestic issues are closely linked to the principal issues in foreign policy. It comes as a discomforting thought to many of Berlin’s policy makers that the degree to which disorder has spread in the international system could be replicated within the structures of the EU and the Federal Republic. It seems that the connectivity between the internal and the external space has never been as strong as it is now. The fact that Germany will experience the externalities of conflicts elsewhere in the form of refugees is no longer just a possibility, but has become a certainty. Because of these externalities, the foreign policy performance of Germany has come to be considered alongside the pressures of domestic politics, while its instruments and concepts have failed to followed suit.

Two issues are puzzling to Berlin in particular. First is the demise of Germany’s “unipolar moment” in the EU. In the last quarter of 2015, Angela Merkel’s European authority weakened visibly as Germany was unable to ensure EU-wide implementation of the decisions it had pushed for. Very few member states were openly opposing the Commission’s proposals on relocation of refugees, on reception centres and on a beefing up of Frontex, all of which were heavily backed by Berlin. However, a much larger number showed very little interest in a swift implementation of collective decisions. Whether because of substance or approach, Merkel’s following in the EU was beginning to crumble. Essentially, Germany’s cluster of backers was limited to Sweden, Austria, the Juncker Commission and the EU-presidency of Luxembourg. At the beginning of 2016, following Sweden’s policy change on refugees, the support group has effectively shrunk to just the EU institutions. Furthermore, with France paralysed by the rise of the Front National and Poland abandoning its position in the political centre of the EU, the two privileged bilateralisms of German EU-policy have failed to deliver. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany has never been as alone in the EU as it is now.

Behind this change lies a transformation in the cleavage line among EU member states. What used to be a divide between integrationists or intergovernmentalists has now become a split between integration minded intergovernmentalist states on the one hand and “sovereigntists” on the other. In the former case, smaller member states were often supporting the integrationist approach and Germany was acting as the most integrationist among the large intergovernmentalist members, capturing a broader range of positions beyond the classic integrationists. Those seeking to use intergovernmental cooperation within the EU now to pool sovereignty are standing against those resisting precisely that. In the eyes of Europe’s new nationalists, intergovernmental integrationism is just as mistaken as the classic Monnet approach to European unity. While Germany and other moderates put their hopes on the steering capacity of the European Council, the sovereignists have begun to question its legitimacy or to denounce its role and authority. The moderates seem to be promoting their interests by using or creating situations in which there is no alternative but to move, showing that the sovereigntist counter-strategy is procrastination. Both approaches seek to downplay the new cleavage line by confusing it, and neither side wants to be seen to be splitting the EU. At the same time, neither side wants to allow the other to prevail. For the time being, it seems that Berlin has not found a recipe to deal with the changing cleavage. The fate of Schengen serves as an illustration of the decay in leadership within the EU.

The second puzzle to Berlin is the EU’s lack of leverage capacity for German foreign policy. Germany’s political class continues to see the EU as the best available framework for the articulation and representation of the German national interest. A strong and capable Germany, the foreign policy review had concluded in 2014, would need a likeminded EU environment. It follows that Germany’s strong position would suffer if the EU was weak, incoherent and unable to act. In this light, the EU’s ability to collectively deal with the upstream dimension of the refugee crisis is considered with unease in Berlin. Increasingly, the various conflicts in the Middle East have become interlinked. What Turkey decides and undertakes is simultaneously shaped by its domestic agenda (and its line on the Kurdish question), its interests in the region and position vis-à-vis Iran and Saudi-Arabia, the two other major rivals, as well as its approach to Europe and the West. An EU-policy would need to be able to reflect and act on all of these dimensions if it wanted to affect the policies coming out of Ankara.

In this respect, Berlin’s reading of the EU is critical. So far, its implementation deficit weakens the EU as an amplifier of Germany’s means when it comes to Turkey. Turkey will hardly be motivated to limit the flow of refugees to Europe if member states procrastinate further on financial assistance to Ankara. Likewise, the EU can hardly be seen as an amplifier of German interests regarding the war in Syria. From Berlin the view is that a strong and coherent position will need to be taken by Europeans at the negotiating table when it comes to ending the fighting between rebels and the regime, and such a position is even more vital under the auspices of rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For German foreign policy this means preparing for a stronger national role, which implies both risks and costs. However, the EU-3, successful in the nuclear talks with Iran, seem to be taking different paths on the various challenges of the Middle East, coordinating themselves rather than pursuing a common approach. It does not help that Paris, Berlin and London are currently divided over internal EU issues.

In sum, as instability and conflict grow in Europe’s neighbourhood and directly affect the domestic situation within a divided union, Germany’s leading EU role is diminished and Berlin’s ability to leverage its power through the EU is seriously reduced. The outlook for 2016 seems rather bleak for Angela Merkel. For the first time really after a decade in office, her performance on the level of the EU and in international crisis management is directly tied to her standing in domestic politics, because the two are linked by the refugee crisis. Support for her is hard to come by, even though Francois Hollande’s domestic Achilles’ heel is more exposed than Merkel’s. Should David Cameron lose his referendum, Britain will draw the EU into a period of negativity and Poland could become a big spoiler in the East, ganging up the sovereigntists while putting more demands on the EU and NATO to contain Russia. Barack Obama will hardly come to the rescue of Europeans in his last year, while Merkel cannot rule out troubles from Vladimir Putin in Eastern Europe and/or the Middle East.

Against such odds, Merkel has started the year by reaffirming her can-do attitude. The Chancellor seems determined to tackle the challenges, one by one and without a grand design. She may succeed for Germany, but whether she can keep Europe together at the same time is another question.

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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