Germany’s newly ‘post-romantic’ attitude towards Europe has become the subject of widespread discussion in recent months. It came up again last week, as the European Council discussed the so-called ‘six pack’ – the package of six measures around issues such as productivity and salaries that is designed to promote more economic cohesion in Europe.
The question this time is ‘symmetric adaption’ – whereby all member states would strive towards new, agreed norms, versus ‘asymmetric adaption’ – meaning that the rest basically adapts to German standards. In an arm-wrestling competition with the European Parliament, the Council – led primarily by Merkel and Sarkozy – insisted on the latter. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was happy.
Its size, its economic power and its history all make Germany unique within the EU, and it has the right to its opinions, just like any other EU member. But Germany’s multiple idiosyncrasies are beginning to irritate and bemuse its European partners. These days people in Brussels complain, that officials from Berlin always find a reason to avoid doing things in the way that would suit Europe as a whole because ‘things are done differently in Germany’.
The reality is that Germany is big enough to impose certain things to its neighbours. When Berlin says ‘jump!’, the other member states have to at least consider the question of ‘how high?’ In the context of the euro crisis, Germany argues that its own growth and employment figures demonstrate that it has the right approach, and therefore is right to push other EU countries down its path. This is reinforced by the fact that many Germans are convinced that the factors behind their current success – such as Chinese hunger for German machinery – will last forever, and are in denial about the potential for structural economic features such as demography or labour shortages to cause problems in the near future.
Whatever Germany’s size and influence, not every state is or can be like Germany, and some do not want to be. The question of ‘symmetric adaption’ is therefore an important one, as it refers to the capacity (and willingness) of European countries including Germany to transform their political and economic fabric towards a European middle ground. In other words: is Germany able and willing to reform essential features of its state and economic structure? Is it structurally ‘europafähig’ (‘capable of being European’) again?
In order to answer this question, it is vital to understand the debates going on within German society, and the issues that colour its thinking on Europe today. The reason why so much attention is focused on Germany right now is that it is alone among the big EU countries in having so visibly changed its attitude towards Europe. Or, to put it the other way round: the others were never as European as Germany in the first place, and therefore their changes in behaviour are less detectable and their mistakes less criticised.
Perhaps what we are seeing is the effect of a ‘doppelter Sonderweg’ – a ‘double special way’. If the famous German ‘Sonderweg’ drove the country into World War Two, then World War Two drove Germany, to some extent, into its current form. The dismantling of Germany in 1945 created specific political, economic and legal fabrics for the Bonn and now Berlin Republics. This German ‘abnormality’ – its supranational approach, and willingness to identify its national interest with the European project – lubricated that project in the postwar decades. But amid much internal soul-searching and without announcing it to the world, Germany has in the years since reunification come to see itself as a ‘normal’ country with legitimate national interests. The quirks in its make-up are no longer a help to Europe but a hindrance. Federalism, the importance of the constitutional court, the culture of monetary stability and Berlin’s ambivalent relationship to power and the use of military force – see Libya – all largely have their roots in the 1949 establishment of the Federal Republic, and all prevent Germany today from being able to be thoroughly European.
This changing national identity is the key to understanding Germany’s changed attitude to Europe. Its political elites have changed, its youth cares more about environmental issues than foreign policy, its constitutional court is struggling with the concept of a pan-European democracy and its economists are asking questions about the single currency.
Hence, Germany holds the key to a modern and internationally bold Europe in the 21st century. Whether that opportunity is unlocked depends on which way Berlin now turns. If it chooses the logic of a new, multi-polar world over that of Maastricht, it could turn to the East, away from its former partners and towards a future of following its own interests alongside the BRICs. A better understanding of what is going on within Germany, which is what we hope to help generate with the publication of What does Germany think about Europe?, is a first step to ensuring that Germany instead turns westwards – back to Brussels, and above all to France – and falls back in love with Europe.
This column was first published by the ECFR