How is Berlin leading Europe: German dilemmas, fears from Central Europe

Are the German policy circles able to meet the objectives set by them? 


Almut Möller, Director of ECFR Berlin

Marek A. Cichocki, Program Director, European Centre Natolin

Michal Kořan, Deputy Director, Institute of International Relations, Prague

ECFR Warsaw had the pleasure to host a debate on German leadership with Almut Möller, Director of ECFR Berlin, Marek A. Cichocki, Program Director at the European Centre Natolin, and Michal Kořan, Deputy Director at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. The panel was chaired by the head of ECFR Warsaw office, Piotr Buras.

Spurred by the publication of “Leading from the centre: Germany’s new role in Europe” by Möller and Josef Janning, the debate revolved around the changing self-conception of Germany and perceptions of its power in other member states, challenges of coalition building, and Central European countries' stance on German leadership.

Mrs. Möller opened the debate by introducing the term “political centre” as an alternative to “leadership” and summarised the shift in EU’s world-view from opportunity-based to one focused on threats. She described the need for a strong and united European reaction in the face of internal and external crises, in which German leadership plays a crucial role. Due to the increased difficulty of coalition building in a 28-state strong Union, Möller proposed a strategy based upon the concept of political centre as a place of “constructed consensus”, and emphasised its dynamic character. By engaging other, like-minded countries, Germany can create ad-hoc or permanent coalition, contribute and mobilise resources, support and acceptance around joint European solutions. Unlike unilateralism, this would make German power more palatable to other member states and transcend the core-periphery dichotomy.

Mr. Kořan, complemented these remarks by presenting Czech perspective on Germany in the EU. Due to deep societal and political division, Czech policies towards Germany are inconsistent and hard to predict. While there have been many examples of practical-minded cooperation, Czech political elites are loath to be perceived as close to Germany due to popular resentment and fears of economic dependence.

On the issue of German leadership, Mr. Cichocki adopted a different take, focusing on internal debates in the country and the limits of German capabilities. There is no doubt that Germany has the greatest potential in the EU, but several factors hinder its translation into capability to act. This is due to its rejection of treaty changes, whereas previous instances of German unilateralism, such as its actions on refugee crisis, made other member states wary. Moreover, Germany may lose political stability, which used to be a great asset. Perhaps more fundamentally, German identity is at odds both with the notion of leadership and the military necessities raised by the new security context.

This was met with a response by Mrs. Möller in which she argued that though Germany remains a pacifist country, it’s elites have begun to emphasise defence. Treaty changes are hard to achieve, but there are avenues for action beyond them, she noted. Referring to the refugee crisis, Möller emphasised the difference in perceptions, as Germany had been guided by humanitarian commitments. She conceded, however, that Berlin had underestimated the impact of refugee influx and had not worked hard enough to forge a common solution to this issue.

The panellists agreed that Central and Eastern European countries do not form a block opposing Germany and coalitions between the two groups are both necessary and possible. Mr. Kořan, however, noted structural constraints on elites’ capability to align with the political centre and argued that a deeper problem of middle-class retreat from liberal democracy requires fundamental changes to political process. Möller concurred and added that coalition building requires efforts beyond the usual diplomatic and governmental discussions.

Several issues came up in the Q&A session. Mrs. Möller noted that the younger generation of German diplomats and policy-makers is more comfortable with leadership role, understand the EU better and is more pragmatic. Asked about the East-West divide in the EU, Mr. Kořan argued that Eastern European countries haven’t been able to come up with alternative solutions so far. Mr. Cichocki added that the East-West resentment may be overcome with more tactful German diplomacy. In such case, German relations with Eastern Europe would be welcome and complementary to its ties with France and Southern Europe, as well as to the transatlantic relationship.