But the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the massive economic fallout it has wrought, is forcing Berlin to acknowledge what some European thinkers have been saying for years: The EU won’t survive without more forceful German leadership.
“Europe needs us, just as we need Europe,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a sparse gathering of MPs last week in a speech meant to lay out her vision of the country’s upcoming EU presidency, which begins next week.
“Agenda Item 10” — Merkel’s speech as announced by Parliament President Wolfgang Schäuble — began with a familiar recitation of the buttery phrases on war and peace and the EU’s manifest destiny that are a mainstay of German political rhetoric.
It soon became clear Merkel had a more pressing message: As Europe struggles with the fallout of the coronavirus, which she described as the “biggest challenge” in EU history, the time had come for Germany to step into the breach. Most significantly, Merkel made it clear that helping Europe was central to Germany’s national interest.
“How Europe fares in this crisis compared to other regions of the world will determine both the future of European prosperity and Europe’s role in the world,” she said.
In other words, Germany — the country that has benefited most from the European Union’s common market, open borders and single currency — needs to do more than just write generous checks and dole out advice on austerity.
“If Germany doesn’t show leadership in Europe, there won’t be a Europe,” said James D. Bindenagel, a professor at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Bonn and a former American ambassador who is writing a book on Germany’s role in the world.
While the notion that Berlin needs to lead might sound unremarkable, even obvious, to foreign ears, in the world of German foreign policy, it represents a significant shift.
After the Cold War, a reunified Germany, now comfortably nestled in the center of Europe, sought to maintain a semblance of balance in its relations with the U.S., its protector, the rest of Europe and Russia, emphasizing free trade and multilateralism. It continued to define its foreign policy in terms of its “historic responsibility,” a nod to the legacy of World War II, not hard national interest.
Even before the pandemic, that strategy looked increasingly untenable. Faced with a dysfunctional EU, a belligerent U.S. administration, an aggressive Russia and the rise of China, Germany struggled to articulate a new strategic doctrine.
The coronavirus has transformed those crosswinds into a full-blown squall, forcing a reappraisal of both German and European strategy on issues as varied as climate change and China.
“For the first time, the Germans have recognized that we’re in a totally different world and they’re trying to find their place,” said Ivan Krastev, a leading thinker on European affairs and the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. “It’s Merkel revising Merkel.”
Until the pandemic, Merkel’s biggest worry was finding a successor. With her term running out in just over a year and with no plans to run again, the German leader was destined to ride off into the sunset after 15 years in office. Though the chancellor was still widely respected, even her ardent supporters acknowledged that she had run out of both steam and ambition.
The coronavirus outbreak rejuvenated her. For a politician with a scientific background who views politics as an intellectual exercise of complex problem-solving, the pandemic presents the ultimate challenge. She also understood that the pandemic represented a more urgent existential threat to the EU than other recent crises, people close to her say.
Germany’s early success in combatting the virus, especially as compared to the U.S. or the U.K., has afforded Merkel both the political capital and the confidence to become more proactive on the European stage.
Even so, her previous forays into European politics show how hard it is to intervene successfully. Merkel’s course in the twin crises that defined Europe’s past decade — the eurozone debt crisis and the refugee crisis of 2015 — did more to divide the Continent than unite it. In Germany, it spawned the far-right Alternative for Germany party, now a fixture in the country’s political landscape.
What makes the current crisis different is that it affects every country in Europe. There’s no opting out of the coronavirus. Even if some Europeans were disappointed by the EU’s initial response, they’ve also learned that going it alone, whether in Sweden or Italy, is not an attractive option either.
Countries that in the past might have looked to the U.S. or even China for help have faced a rude awakening. While the U.S.’s ham-handed response to the crisis has damaged its credibility in Europe, China’s efforts to obscure its own role in spreading the disease has also deepened distrust of Beijing.
For most European countries, overcoming the fallout of the pandemic, especially the economic impact, means relying on Europe, if not out of a sense of common purpose, out of basic necessity.
The question is to what degree the rest of Europe is ready to countenance the very German dominance the EU was conceived to temper.
Germany is the largest EU country by size and population, not to mention its economic powerhouse. Merkel is without question the region’s most influential leader. Germans now occupy key posts in Brussels, most notably the presidency of the Commission.
Is Europe ready for Berlin to take even more control? The short answer is that it doesn’t have any choice.
The EU’s received wisdom holds that only the “Franco-German engine” can power the bloc forward. In the past, the people behind the wheel tended to speak French.
In the early years, West Germany, grateful to have been invited to the party at all, was content to let Paris take center stage. Over time, the Germans gradually began to assert more influence.
But Germany didn’t drive Europe’s transformation. In fact, Europe’s biggest step toward integration — the euro — was the result of a German concession: In return for France’s acceptance of German reunification, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed to relinquish the Deutsche Mark.
Compared with the early days of the European project, France is now a diminished power both politically and economically. In contrast to Germany, where pro-EU mainstream parties are still supported by the vast majority of the population, the Euroskeptic far right is an ever-present threat. To the degree Germany still needs France, it’s to keep up appearances.
“Germany treats France the way the U.S. treated the Soviet Union after the Wall fell,” an adviser to the German government said.
In recent years, even as German leaders never failed to intone the importance of the European ideal in public, in practice, they treated the EU more as the problem than the solution.
When Germany did take the initiative in the past, it did so as much out of self-interest, as for the good of Europe. Take the EU’s Eastern enlargement, a German priority that put the country at the bloc’s geographic center and gave the country’s industry unlimited access to cheap manufacturing and labor.
Those countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, are now fiercely independent, at least politically. In terms of their economies, they are all heavily reliant on Germany. Poland alone, by far the biggest economy in the region, sends nearly 30 percent of its exports to Germany, its largest trading partner.
It’s easy to see why Berlin has been content to treat Europe as an afterthought. Following the financial crisis of 2008-09, Germany effectively decoupled from much of the rest of the region. Its export-led economy quickly rebounded, driven by demand for its cars and machinery from China, and then the U.S. As Southern Europe grappled with its debt crisis, Germany’s economy powered ahead, generating several years of fiscal surpluses.
In Berlin’s view, the remedy for Europe’s ills, especially its economic ones, was for the rest of the bloc to become more German. Europe’s laggards, to quote Merkel, needed “to do their homework,” by reining in government spending and making their economies more competitive.
Looking back, people close to Merkel acknowledge that Germany’s approach was misguided. While the U.S., which implemented ambitious stimulus measures from the beginning of the financial crisis, posted a robust recovery, some countries in Europe, weighed by austerity measures, suffered a lost decade.
Germany’s embrace of much more aggressive measures to combat the current crisis, both domestically and at the EU level, amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that the policies of the past have failed.
Merkel’s endorsement last month of a €500 billion debt-financed fund for countries struggling to cope with the pandemic marked the turning point in Germany’s approach. Prior to the pandemic, such a step would have been unthinkable.
The move was possible in part due to a generational shift among Germany’s leading economists; old-line conservatives who dominated previous debates have retired and been replaced by a more liberal, internationalist voices. Even more importantly, a change in leadership at Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, has made it more willing to compromise on financial matters.
People close to Merkel say that while she wanted to send a clear signal with the fund, it doesn’t represent the seminal shift away from parsimony and national responsibility that many foreign observers saw. “The intention is to keep Europe from collapsing,” one said.
That might be naive. While the fund alone won’t save Europe, it’s difficult to deny that Germany, which rejected similar steps for decades, has crossed a Rubicon.
Nonetheless, it would also be an exaggeration to expect Germany’s embrace of a more robust leadership role to result in the kind of federalized EU superstate advocated by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron.
“This is not a federalist moment,” Krastev said. “No one is dreaming of a United States of Europe, but you do have much more willingness for cooperation, especially in the economic sphere.”
In Merkel’s world, leadership means pursuing what’s realistic, a list that for the presidency includes improving Schengen, revising the EU’s competition rules, exploring taxes to fund the EU and the possibility of an EU security council to assess external threats.
If she succeeds in showing Europe that Germany can lead without dominating, she will have also secured something that has eluded her for the past 15 years: a legacy.