A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Taking the Bull by the Horns

Why Paris and Berlin should not wait until after the German elections to get going.

Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of a euroskeptic US president have propelled the need for EU reform. Berlin and Paris should not lose time in making the best of the current momentum.

© REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

When it comes to European affairs, Berlin has traditionally had a great deal of confidence in its own role. Since the European Union’s founding, it has been part of Germany’s political identity to regard itself as one of the chief architects and advocates of European integration. Nonetheless, Berlin seems to have been punching below its weight in Brussels lately. Though it would be too simplistic to blame Berlin for the lack of progress on major issues such as eurozone governance, migration policy, and European security, German policymakers would be well-advised to ask themselves where their approach has failed them.

A recalibration of Berlin’s role in the EU seems overdue considering the upheaval in the past decade – the global financial crisis, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the failure by EU members to forge a joint response to the refugee crisis. An already embattled EU now faces additional pressure from nationalist movements across Europe, a majority of British voters deciding to leave the EU, and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

The Brexit vote in June 2016 meant that the disintegration of the union was no longer unthinkable. Britain’s departure worried Berlin less than the prospect of a domino effect within Europe. Rubbing salt in the wound just days before his inauguration, Trump told German tabloid Bild that the British decision to leave was “smart“ and predicted that other member states would follow suit. (FN1) The reality that the United States – Europe’s most important ally – was calling into question the value of the EU suggested a fundamental shift in transatlantic relations, and came at a time of unprecedented weakness for the union, making it even more dangerous.

All Talk, No Action

At this early stage, it was not quite clear to what extent Trump’s remarks would actually translate into policy. But the comments nonetheless shook the foundations of German foreign policy. Berlin suddenly understood with threatening clarity how much was at stake for Germany if both the EU and the transatlantic alliance could no longer be taken for granted.

“I believe we Europeans have our destiny in our own hands,” said Angela Merkel in a January 2017 press conference when quizzed about president-elect’s comments. “I will continue to do my part to ensure that the 27 member states cooperate intensively and above all in a forward-looking manner.“ (FN2) In its simplicity, this phrase reflected a strategic choice. Its latest interactions with London and Washington had conveyed to Berlin a large degree of unpredictability. Berlin came to the conclusion that improving the cohesion and performance of the EU and its member states could amplify its leverage. Berlin would not shy away from dealing with the UK and the US on core issues, but would invest more energy in re-engaging its EU partners and strengthening the cohesion of the EU 27.

Role Reversal

It may seem as though these aims are no different from what has been promised over the past decade, with Berlin reiterating time and again its commitment to EU integration. But the German government is becoming increasingly aware of the pressure to deliver. The past decade has demonstrated that paying lip service to one’s commitment to the EU while failing to deliver reform is not enough to avert a crisis.

It could be considered ironic that – after years of German dominance – France is the country pushing Germany out of its comfort zone. President Emmanuel Macron has invested significant political capital in favor of domestic and EU reforms and is thereby forcing Berlin’s hand. As campaigning heats up ahead of German federal elections in September, this is not an easy game for Berlin to play. In the days after the French election, both Bild and Der Spiegel warned readers that the young and ambitious Macron would plunder their bank accounts to pursue his vision for the EU. (FN3)

Indeed, the current policy controversies at the EU level are less than suitable in making a case for EU unity and collective strength. This is particularly true for eurozone reform, where French and German views continue to diverge. However, there has been a renewal of the debate regarding a more “flexible EU.” (FN4) The old concept of a multi-speed union as a remedy against centrifugal forces regained some prominence with a declaration adopted in March in which EU leaders referred to “different levels of integration,” saying, “Some countries will go faster than others.”

Out in the Cold?

What Germany and other like-minded countries – in particular France, Italy, and Spain – intend to do is to build on the new momentum for cooperation in the EU. Recent ECFR research showed that there is a readiness to explore new ways of working together in order to achieve better results. Flexibility is no longer seen as propelling disintegration. Instead, after years of division over the euro, migration, and security, flexibility is viewed as something that can actually help overcome divisions and rebuild much-needed trust among EU citizens.

One should not underestimate the impact such an initiative can have among reluctant partners like Warsaw and Budapest. Neither have an interest in a position as outsiders, particularly at a time when flexible cooperation projects are being launched in areas of core interest to them (external border security in the case of Hungary, and European defense in the case of Poland, for example). This is why there is a calculated threat in recent initiatives put forward by Germany and other like-minded countries that implies to reluctant partners that they may be left out in the cold if they fail to adhere to EU rules. This kind of implicit pressure has been a feature of previous rounds of flexibility debates in the 1990s and early 2000s. What has changed is that being an outsider has become a much more threatening prospect. The UK currently serves as an unglamorous example of what it means for a member – even one of its size and economic strength – to be left out in the cold.

Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and a veteran of EU politics, recently published an article in conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FN5) in which he argued that the EU needed to strengthen its capacity to act in areas where even nationalists acknowledge that going it alone is not enough, for example the protection and management of the EU’s external borders, European security and defense, and eurozone governance.

Appealing to Voters

Berlin is trying to get a sense of public opinion as the German electorate gets ready to head to the polls in September. What almost a decade of crises has failed to bring out in voters has been prompted by the prospect of Brexit and a Trump presidency: According to a recent Eurobarometer poll, Germans’ trust in the EU has risen by 20 percent since November 2016. (FN6) Since the end of 2016, a growing number of citizens across the country is joining the weekly “Pulse of Europe” marches. A non-partisan movement, “Pulse of Europe” brings together people who oppose nationalism, advocate unity, democracy, and human rights, and believe in the EU’s ability to reform.

Trump’s election has demonstrated to many Europeans in a clear-cut way what might happen if the commitment to fundamental values – often taken for granted in Western democracies – comes under attack. This example has given depth to public debate across Europe and has made European citizens stand up for the values that unite them.

Ten years of crises have not created an EU fatigue among Germans – on the contrary, the European narrative seems to have a renewed sense of purpose. It now seems as if the public is encouraging the political establishment to regain its confidence in the EU and to implement reforms.

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel recently put this theory to the test. In a March op-ed also for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he argued that Germans needed to stop obsessing over their contributions to the EU budget. (FN7) “The truth is that Germany is not a European net payer, but a net winner … Each euro that we pay into the EU budget multiplies and flows back to us.” He went on to suggest that Germany do something “outrageous” in the next debate about Europe’s budget: “Instead of fighting for a reduction of our financial contribution to the EU, we should signal our willingness to pay even more.”

A Franco-German Compromise

2016 marked a watershed moment for Germany and for the EU as a whole. The prospect of disintegration after the Brexit vote and the election of an unpredictable US president placed almost a decade of EU infighting over prosperity, security, and migration in a completely different light. The EU 27 found themselves suddenly out in the open, with their vulnerabilities laid bare. Berlin reacted in an impressively sober and strategic way to signs of EU disintegration and the new transatlantic constellation.

In this moment of unprecedented uncertainty, Germany has started “taking the bull by the horns” by moving more decisively to contain the threat of disintegration and continuing to invest in the EU as the preferred model of regional order. Germany has also started to forge coalitions of like-minded partners on core policy issues through flexible forms of cooperation.

Both the presidential and parliamentary elections in France have triggered a new sense of dynamism in Berlin’s political establishment. But both Paris and Berlin are aware of the hard work that lies ahead. The fact that Macron put eurozone reform on the public agenda in Germany initially highlighted differences between the two countries, but this is not necessarily a hurdle for a Franco-German compromise. It is about time Berlin get used to the idea that the EU is more than a sporting field that the Germans always leave victorious. The ability to compromise is deeply enshrined in Germany’s political identity, and this part of its culture has also served the EU in the past. The next government in Berlin should learn from the current administration’s underestimating the readiness of a majority of Germans for greater EU cooperation, and, indeed, integration.

1    “Was an mir Deutsch ist?,” interview with Donald Trump, Bild, January 16, 2017.
2    “Ich denke, wir Europäer haben unser Schicksal selber in der Hand. Ich werde mich weiter dafür einsetzen, dass die 27 Mitgliedstaaten intensiv und vor allen Dingen auch zukunftsgerichtet zusammenarbeiten.”, press conference by Angela Merkel and the prime minister of New Zealand, Berlin, January 16, 2017.
3    See, for example, the Bild headline “How Much Will Macron Cost Us?” (“Neue Zeiten in Frankreich: Wie teuer wird Macron für uns?”, May 8, 2017) and the cover headline of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel – “Macron Saves Europe … And Germany Is Supposed to Pay” (“Teurer Freund: Emmanuel Macron rettet Europa … und Deutschland soll zahlen,” 20/2017, May 13, 2017).
4    See Almut Möller and Dina Pardijs, “The Future Shape of Europe. How the EU can bend without breaking,” ECFR Flash Scorecard, March 2017.
5    Wolfgang Schäuble, “Beste Vorsorge für das 21. Jahrhundert,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 20, 2017.
6    European Commission, Special Eurobarometer 461: Designing Europe’s future, 2017.
7    Sigmar Gabriel, “Deutschland: kein europäisches Nettozahler-, sondern ein Nettogewinner-Land,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 22, 2017.