Rome: The Germany that Europe needs

ECFR’s Rome Office held a seminar on 14 October, as part of the review of German foreign policy launched by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.


Emma Bonino, Former Foreign Minister; ECFR Council Member

Lucio Caracciolo, Director, LIMES

Reinhard Schäfers, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Italy

Chaired by

Silvia Francescon, Head of the Rome Office, ECFR

As part of the review of German foreign policy launched by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, ECFR’s Rome Office held a seminar on 14 October. It was led by Italy’s former foreign minister and ECFR council member, Emma Bonino, the director of the geopolitical reviewLIMES, Lucio Caracciolo, and Reinhard Schäfers, Germany’s ambassador to Italy.

The debate was structured around two discussion panels, introduced by Ambassador Schäfers. The first panelfocused on an analysis of German foreign policy and how the European economic and political crisis has shifted Germany’s attention from foreign policy issues towards internal matters, as has happened in other European countries. The second panel was on Southern Europe and examined ways in which Germany could make its leadership potential available to the European Union and contribute to the stabilisation of the crises in the MENA region.

German foreign policy after the euro crisis

Europe is at the moment experiencing not only an economic and social crisis, but also a cultural crisis, with Germany’s role in Europe causing problems across the rest of the continent. Cultural crises of this kind can produce geopolitical problems. The key word of the moment is “trust”: the division between debtors and creditors in Europe has generated a crisis of trust across Europe, especially between Italy and Germany. But unlike at times of crisis in the past, most European countries now share a central bank and currency, both of which bind them together.

The main issue at stake between Italians and Germans is the two countries’ different conceptionof what “stability” means. For Germans, stability means above all price stability, which to them corresponds to social stability. For Italians, stability means social stability, which differs from price stability. In fact, for Italy, price stability implies deflation and social instability. Germans, in doing what they believe is right, have caused instability in their partners, such as Italy. The German approach to stability is partly ideological, based on cultural habits and historical experience.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany was not prepared to assume a central role in Europe, and it is still not prepared to play this part. It is hard to imagine a German hegemony in Europe. Germany is culturally and ideologically against the idea of being a hegemon, for three reasons:

  1. Being a hegemon means having to take into account the interests of your partners.

  2. The eurozone is dysfunctional: everyone knew it, and now we have seen it.

  3. To be a hegemon, a strategy is needed. Germany has no clear strategy on foreign policy.

Future cooperation between Italy and Germany cannot be based on history – leaving the past behind is good for both Italy and Germany. Western Europe should recognise that the principle of “leaving the past in the past” is one of the most advantageous notions that it could take on. But at the moment, it seems that we are acting as if we were all in the past. If we go back to European Germanophobia or German Europhobia, we risk opening the way to destabilisation and preventing deeper integration in Europe. If we go back to old prejudices and allow cultural divides to widen, we will never advance as a united Europe. And unfortunately, right now, we are not too far away from this scenario.

Some people think that Germany may now shift towards the old concept of Kern-Europa (hard-core Europe), where the stronger countries control Europe. We do not have a status quo to maintain and we have to think outside of the box in recreating a united Europe. Three scenarios can be envisaged:

  1. The best possible outcome (and ambition) for all of us would be a politically united Europe, based on a new political project and not just on a revision of treaties. We should look for real commonalities and not base cooperation and integration simply on a shared currency.

  2. Another option is the creation of different core-Europe countries with lesser degrees of commonality (not just the currency). This opens up the possibility of more “Europes” that coordinate between themselves, not necessarily sharing one currency.

  3. The worst scenario would be to leave things as they are, going downhill both in Europe and beyond. This would generate a broad conflict with no winners and many losers.

Crises in the Middle East and North Africa

Italy and Germany have two things in common on crisis management in the MENA region. Neither has much faith in military action, and both believe that military action must always be part of a comprehensive strategy.

Both countries agree that strategyis the key tocrisis management in the MENA region. That the two sides share this vision was demonstrated by their cooperation on chemical weapons disarmament in Syria. The United States is, of course, the world’s greatest military power. But while Americans know how to kill a dictator, they do not necessarily understand how to deal with “the day after”. In other words, the US does not always have a clear strategy – and the EU should draw lessons from this and begin to discuss seriously how member states want to deal with the MENA region.

Europe should build a strategic vision based on common European interests in foreign policy. Right now, this is not happening. Much emphasis has been placed on the need to overcome national interests, but having national interests is not a crime. If Europeans will not talk about a common strategy, it would be smart at least to talk seriously about national interests and try to find some points of agreement. Europe faces a critical situation: no one really understands what is going on in the MENA region and, more importantly, member states are afraid of discussion and are reluctant to change their traditional politics or call into question traditional alliances. 

The MENA region, and particularly Northern Africa, is undergoing chaotic changes at supersonic speed, involving high levels of ambiguity and the emergence of unlikely coalitions. The most tragic result of this messy situation is the rise of the Islamic State (IS). Europe cannot waste time: it must outline a clear common strategy and take a strong position. The Council of the European Union should become a forum for dialogue in which member states can transparently discuss their national interests in order to find a common approach. As it stands, the Council is too bureaucratic.

In the case of IS, we must not try to fight an ideology with military means alone. Certainly, at the moment, military action is needed to stop IS from growing stronger. However, the newly born “coalition of the willing” is not stable, since every participant has its own strategy and we cannot be sure that everyone involved is fully committed to fighting IS. For instance, Turkey has its own concerns about providing assistance to the Kurds.

In dealing with IS, we need to realise that Western powers do not have a miraculous answer to the IS crisis. Military action must not be seen as a solution, but instead should be recognised as a means to an end. Further, the idea of a “coalition of the willing” is very dangerous from a methodological point of view. It paves the way for the rise of other coalitions of a different nature. And finally, Western powers should adopt a more balanced and less ideology-driven approach to Iran, which is the real and only game changer in the region. We need to include Iran and somehow encourage it to take responsibility for developments in the region.