In the past two weeks, Berlin has provided a series of insights into its reasoning on the state and future of the European Union. It was high time it did so: calls for the Germans to respond to French President Emmanuel Macron’s forceful overtures on the issue were growing ever louder. Chancellor Angela Merkel, Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas used several interviews and speeches to explain their views on EU reform – particularly a much-needed rapprochement with Paris on economic and monetary union (EMU), and European security and defence – and the difficult transatlantic relationship.
Merkel’s decision to end the silence was undoubtedly important not only for Germany’s partners on the other side of the Rhine and in the wider EU, but also for the German public. For foreign observers of Germany, it is often striking that the most powerful EU member engages in what is often an underdeveloped domestic debate on Europe’s future. Against this background, it is no bad thing that there is now an element of competition within the grand coalition government on European issues. The Social Democrats, the party of Scholz and Maas, pride themselves on their significant contribution to the 2018 coalition treaty’s discussion of Europe, but it was Merkel who made the first move to publicly address the issue, in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (see Josef Janning’s incisive analysis of the piece). Scholz followed suit in an interview with Der Spiegel. And, most recently, Maas delivered a major speech on Europe to an audience in Berlin.
There are at least two dimensions to such interventions: the “what” and the “how”. Commentators usually focus on the former: is there a growing consensus between Berlin and Paris on EMU reform? Is Berlin ready to make concessions and, if so, of what kind? Are the Germans serious about increasing defence spending and deploying troops with greater ease? And, fundamentally, is Berlin finally seizing the moment to respond to Macron and strengthen the EU, thereby reinforcing his position in French domestic politics? It remains unclear whether the dense web of consultations between Berlin and Paris will produce clear answers to these questions before the EU summit at the end of this month, signalling a renewed vitality within the EU.
Nonetheless, speechwriters and advisers will equally focus on the “how” of communication, carefully thinking about setting, format, and target groups. Take Maas’ intervention: he addressed his first speech on Europe to a young audience, inviting a crowd of citizens and activists to a trendy construction-site-like Berlin venue. This was part of a wider foreign office initiative to reach out to the German public on European and global affairs. Policymakers and journalists in other European capitals will naturally heed any speech by a German foreign minister. Yet by adopting the format of a major speech, Maas risked disappointing both audiences.
Although the European politicians have made an abundance of normative speeches on Europe, but few on the politics of cooperation. Nonetheless, German leaders’ recent interventions hint at a turning point in this trend – its messages could have had a greater impact if communicated in a different format. Policymakers, journalists, and analysts may have rather quickly skipped over Maas’ assessment of the disorder within the EU and its relations with the United States. And, expecting more concrete ideas from Berlin on how to keep the EU afloat now that the transatlantic alliance is crumbling at such breathtaking speed, they may have missed the details of his plan for overcoming Franco-German differences. The pro-European citizens who Mass addressed in his speech, and who he subsequently invited to ask questions and make comments, were visibly appreciative of his clear European commitment, but were perhaps also asking themselves where he would go from there in more substantive terms – and what their contributions to the EU’s renewal could be. This is exactly the area in which the format of a major speech loses its clout, and in which the format of a debate with insights into the inner workings of European cooperation is most promising.
Maas’ interaction with the audience was in fact more interesting than the speech itself, as it allowed him to reflect on his day-to-day job. There have been a host of other similar interactions in recent weeks: Macron’s 20-minute interview with German national television on the eve of the Charlemagne Prize ceremony; Merkel’s hour-long question and answer session on German prime time television after the disappointment of the G7 summit in Canada; and Scholz’s interview with Der Spiegel, in which he explicitly argued from the perspective of a Social Democrat.
Macron, Merkel, Scholz, and Maas all set out with the intention of making a positive case for Europe. But their arguments become more convincing when they discuss real-world examples of Europeans working together, and of what it means to form coalitions with other EU capitals and shape domestic political majorities in an increasingly competitive European environment. Instead of talking about the future of Europe in broad terms, Maas could have depicted several concrete examples of European cooperation on, say, the Iran nuclear deal, the EU’s trade dispute with the US, and efforts to strengthen European security – with all the difficulties and limitations they involve. Citizens and commentators alike might find such mode of communication more engaging, as it would address the many difficult choices and inner tensions Europeans face in a more authentic way.
For some time, European politicians have made an abundance of normative speeches on Europe, but few on the politics of cooperation. Nonetheless, German leaders’ recent interventions hint at a turning point in this trend – one that would be good for European public discourse and, ultimately, for democracy.