Germany: disenchantment rather than enthusiasm

22 Jun 2016 - 11:44
Bron: Jo.sau Flickr.

The end of permissive consensus

Germany is an indispensable motor of European integration. Inside the European framework and in close cooperation with France, Germany has exerted considerable leadership in shaping European institutions and defining norms and principles for crucial European projects such as the Single Market or the Euro. Traditionally, there has been an unconditional pro-European consensus in Germany. European integration has always defined Germany’s post-war politics because close cooperation and coordination with its European partners allowed Germany to rehabilitate itself as a political actor after WWII.

In contrast to other member states, support for the EU in Germany has not eroded dramatically during the Eurozone crisis because Germany managed to maintain stable economic growth, making Germans not feel the crisis. Consequently, a controversial discussion about different approaches of how to fix the Eurozone crisis hardly made it beyond intellectual circles.

At the same time, most Germans have demonstrated awareness that the Single Market and the Common Currency have to be protected because their export-oriented economy is among those profiting most from it. Yet, the extent of how the Eurozone crisis escalated, has left its marks on how Germans perceive the EU. The times of permissive consensus  -when Germans rather uninformed and tacitly agreed to deeper European integration as long as it did not affect their daily lives negatively-  are certainly over, reflecting a growing disenchantment with the EU.

Germany alone in its Europeanness
Since summer 2015, the sympathy of the German population towards the EU has suffered severely as the country has been confronted with unprecedented numbers of refugees. The recent Eurobarometer of autumn 2015 indicates that only 34 percent view the EU positively (down from 45 percent in spring 2015). In contrast to the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis is much more explosive and is a severe challenge for the internal cohesion of German society touching upon questions of identity and domestic security.

This time, Germany seems not to be in the driving seat when it comes to finding a European solution – a feeling that leaves many Germans deeply uncomfortable. As many member states have demonstrated no or only little willingness to engage in a common approach of handling the situation, Germany has felt left alone. Experiencing a lack of solidarity between the member states and frustrated about the EU’s missing capacity to develop effective policies, many Germans started to doubt the validity of the EU’s values. Nevertheless, a large majority still deems common European solutions to the refugee crisis imperative and disapproves any relapse into purely nation-state politics.

Parties in Germany: Too European for a vision on Europe
Until recently, a public debate on Germany’s vision on Europe took hardly place; in so much the (quiet) consensus on an ‘ever closer union’ made it needless. This is now changing in light of the current political situation.

In general, the main political parties converge in their attitude towards the EU. As a consequence, for a long time it has seemed rather unattractive to choose the EU as a topic for campaigns and political programs, since it would not help to demarcate any differences among them. This holds also true for the Eurozone crisis in which all mainstream parties have supported the major rescue measures in the Bundestag.

However, the founding of the Eurosceptic, right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in 2013 will influence the discourse of the political mainstream on European integration in the long run. The recent party’s electoral success illustrates the growing disenchantment over the way the euro crisis was managed and the fear of citizens that German economic interests are in danger. The refugee crisis has multiplied the support for the AfD due to its vocal opposition to the government’s policies and its call for limiting immigration and suspending Schengen. This demonstrates that even a rather pro-European country like Germany is not immune to an increasingly negative debate on Europe and to the rising influence of populist parties.

Debating German European leadership in a renationalizing Europe
Due to its economic strength, Germany bears special responsibility to take leadership when it comes to tackling the multiplicity of challenges the EU is currently facing. This has become even more apparent as other important partners inside the EU, i.e. France or Italy, have become more and more self-absorbed with domestic economic and political challenges. However, Germany’s leadership role is not undisputed. In both the economic crisis and the refugee crisis, the country has found itself between those claiming the necessity of German leadership of the EU, and critics accusing Germany of a return to hegemonic behavior.

A rule based EU instead of an integrationist agenda
Either way, Germany is at the core of EU decision-making. Even though many observers criticize the German government for a lack of vision on how to shape the future of the EU, in the light of the pressing challenges, its agenda is not less ambitious: Merkel’s first priority is to push for durable European solutions for both the refugee and the Eurozone crisis, to protect the achievements of European integration (the Euro and the Schengen agreement) and to hold an EU together that is more and more drifting apart.

Disintegration is not an option. Nevertheless, against the background of the current political climate with Eurosceptic forces across Europe on the rise, an integrationist agenda seems highly unrealistic. Instead, the German government concentrates on fixing the flaws of previous European integration steps and to develop a set of rules that makes the EU fit for future challenges.

No other country in the EU has profited to such an extent from the achievements of the EU as Germany. Thus, the country will remain committed to a high degree of European integration – not least because of the great overlap of German and European interests. However, the once unconditional and passive support has given way to a great deal of pragmatism and disenchantment.

Julie Hamann is a program officer in the Franco-German relations program of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and Julian Rappold is a program officer at the Alfred von Oppenheim-Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).