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Germany’s new role in Europe

Germany did not seek greater responsibility in Europe after reunification. Nevertheless, for various reasons that has been the country’s lot.


Since the summer and autumn of 1990 – and the conclusion of the Two Plus Four talks and the unification of the two German states on 3 October 1990 – the German question has been answered: the Federal Republic of Germany recognised the Oder and Neisse as its eastern border in a treaty, binding under international law; the division of the nation into two states came to an end; and the front line between the Eastern and Western military alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – ceased to run through the heart of Europe.

In 1990, and for a long time after that, when people wanted to acknowledge the political changes that had taken place since autumn 1989, they primarily looked back into the past and wha they saw was marked by a feeling of gratitude and relief: the Second World War was now finally over and the fall of the Berlin Wall meant the end of a border that had been a constant manifestation of the provisional nature of peace in Europe. Geographical Europe could now be politically restructured.

The resolution of the “German question” and the end of the division of Europe led to the disappearance from world politics of a flashpoint that only a few years before had become caught up in a deadly cycle of armament and rearmament. Instead of the stationing of new missiles, disarmament was carried out on a grand scale: the Soviet Army withdrew from Central Europe, the Americans reduced their military presence in Western Europe and the Bundeswehr soon had less than half as many troops. It is entirely understandable that under these circumstances the view of the future was overshadowed by that of the past. The future role a united Germany would play in Europe was not an issue that occupied German public opinion. The view of the future was eclipsed by the prospect that the past was now finally over.

People did not think about Germany’s future role in Europe and the world, because soon after reunification the Germans became very much preoccupied with themselves: the economic integration of the new eastern states was far more difficult than expected because most of the production facilities in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) turned out to be on their last legs. These economic problems were transformed into social upheavals, and by the end of the 1990s Germany was considered the problem child of Europe for whom others had to make allowances – for example, in relation to national debt. It was inconceivable then that Germany would one day be able to present itself as a “role model” on matters of fiscal policy and budget consolidation. Furthermore, the introduction of the euro suggested the Federal Republic had given away what had previously been its most important instrument of power over other European economies, namely the deutschmark.

Everything seemed to be moving towards Europe, especially as Germany, the most populous nation in the EU, showed the greatest readiness to integrate into a united continent. The problem was that Europe had changed in the meantime, and the more candidate countries acceded to the Union, the further the political project of a “United States of Europe” moved into the distance. What had seemed perfectly feasible in the original “Europe of Six”, the 1960s economic community consisting of France, Italy, the “old” Federal Republic and the Benelux countries, became a political impossibility after the rounds of expansion towards the south, north and east. However, no one wanted to discuss the subject in the euphoria of European unification. The identity debate, which eventually took place in relation to Turkey’s accession to the Europe Union, became a mock exchange without meaning. The European Union had long ago become too large and too heterogeneous to be able to speak of a common identity. However, when members of group argue someone else is an outsider, they imply a shared identity that they do not actually have.

The debate on Turkey’s EU accession suggested it was a matter of upholding an unquestionable European identity against an endless expansion of the European project. Drawing a demarcation line against Turkey made it appear that the EU was founded on a shared political culture. As a result, the political and cultural differences and the sociostructual heterogeneity of the EU were swept under the carpet. This illusion was only brought to an end by the euro crisis of the years after 2008 when the divisions and discrepancies running through Europe became manifest and people openly asked how they should be addressed. This was also accompanied by the inevitable question of Germany’s role in Europe. Whether people wanted it or not, Germany is the only country with the resources and capabilities to hold together a heterogeneous Europe being pulled apart by centrifugal forces. That is an outline of Germany’s new role in Europe and the world: in Europe it must keep the Union together, and in the wider world it must ensure the European economy is not marginalised by the economic rise of East Asia. Of course, it cannot do that alone; other countries must help. However, Germany must be the main actor in the group of those that take up this challenge.

But shouldn’t this actually be the responsibility of European institutions? The European Commission, the European Parliament or, if need be, even the Eurogroup? Haven’t they, especially the Parliament, been strengthened in recent years to take on tasks like these and to reduce the influence of the intergovernmental rounds in which the government leaders and ministers of the EU countries meet? That, at least, was the idea. In fact, however, the opposite has been the case. The common currency, the euro, was conceived as a project that would enable every­one to experience Europe as a shared common area. That has certainly been achieved, but the fiscal crisis also resulted in the euro reviving national grudges that were imagined long gone. This is also associated with the fact that in a crisis people look not to “distant” Europe, but to their “close” national governments.

At the height of the euro crisis, the recently upgraded European Parliament played practically no role at all; instead the reins of power were wielded by intergovernmental bodies. A similar situation is emerging on the question of whether the United Kingdom will continue to remain a member of the EU or leave the community. It is not a question that will be decided in Brussels or Strasbourg, but one that, when it comes down to it, will be negotiated directly between Berlin and London. People can regret that, because it totally contradicts the European project. Nevertheless, that does nothing to change the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany is the actor within the EU that can keep the UK in the Union by making concessions or upholding the treaties – or, if the price is too high, allow it to leave. This is a repeat of what we saw and are still seeing in Greece’s national debt crisis. Once again it is crises that reveal the strength or weakness of institutions. And when it comes to EU crises, of which Greece’s financial problems and the moves towards an exit within the UK are only the most visible, European institutions have proved weak. They are designed for “normal business”, for administering Europe while no major problems arise and open questions can be answered by consensus. As soon as that is not the case, the power shifts and national governments again play the main role.

The stability of the EU during recent crises is certainly also due to the fact that there is a second level to which European negotiating and decision-making processes can turn when the genuinely European institutions are weak and overstretched. The EU has a highly graduated institutional structure that possesses great expertise in dealing with crises, and so far it has successfully dealt with all forecasts of a division of Europe or a failure of the euro. Germany is the anchor within this institutional arrangement, and that means: the more often crises occur in Europe and the longer they last, the more clearly Germany’s new role will manifest itself. Naturally, this visibility also makes the decisions of the German government vulnerable. The role of Germany becomes a subject of political debate. That is the Germans’ second new discovery: not only is the German role in Europe open to question, but it can also provoke controversy.

How did this come about? It can hardly be said that Germany pushed for this new role – it was wanted neither by its elites nor its general public. The charm of the European project lay precisely in the fact that it unburdened them of political leadership duties. They took a place in the second row and allowed others to take the responsibility. A little more determination was only shown on economic issues, particularly as criticism was unlikely in view of their own efforts and achievements. A whole raft of developments has taken Germany out of this comfortable role and into a high visibility position where it is open to criticism.

First of all, there is the increase in the country’s economic weight as a result of reunification. Initially, this was not immediately apparent because of the economic adjustment processes in the new states, but it then became all the more obvious with the emergence of the euro crisis. Germany alone contributes more than a quarter of the economic output of the Eurozone, and the fiscal risks that it has to bear as part of the support programmes for the heavily indebted southern countries are accordingly high. That is why it inevitably played the decisive role in defining the conditions for financial assistance. Because this was associated with considerable risks for Germany’s own national budget and there was opposition to the euro bailout policy, the government had to explain its reasons and goals to its own population. It became necessary to talk about Germany’s interest in Europe and its economic situation, and these statements were attentively followed by the European partners. The time of self-concealment and exerting influence from the second row was over.

The euro crisis revealed not only Germany’s economic weight, but also Europe’s socio-economic heterogeneity. The southern and eastern expansions of the Union led to the accession of countries whose economic power and prosperity are far removed from those of the European centre. It was imagined that they would be gradually led towards this centre. People assumed this would be a long-term process that would be supported by the experience of gradual convergence. This is where the euro crisis interrupted and replaced the prospect of convergence with an experience of increasing divergence. The potential for conflict within Europe, previously dampened by hopes for the future, broke out into the open, making necessary decisive German political action on the European stage. That provoked objections and opposition, and very soon some attempted to use German history, namely the Second World War, for their own political purposes. The project that was set in motion to overcome the causes and consequences of this war became the setting for its political instrumentalisation.

Europe’s economic and fiscal problems were not only a result of the sociostructural divergence of the European periphery; they were aggravated by a lack of economic growth in France and Italy, two other founding members. In principle, they should have been expected to play an important role in shaping a core Europe that would curb the heterogeneity of the EU. For different political reasons, however, neither country engaged in the reform processes with which Germany prepared itself to meet the challenges of a global economy.

As a result, the role and position of “central power” went to Germany alone. That will not change for the foreseeable future. It is also clear, however, that Germany requires support and assistance in mastering these challenges. Several of the smaller net contributor countries should be able and willing to play a role here.

Germany’s new role is obviously not only the result of shifts in the balance of power within Europe, but has also been precipitated by the influence of non-EU actors; Russia and the United States have played a major role here. On what are for them important and, at the same time, sensitive issues, they attempt to circumvent the EU and seek contact with its most important actor to accelerate negotiations and pre-structure their outcomes. As a result, Germany’s new role has been reinforced by external influences. This is something that Germany cannot reject for a number of reasons, but that it must also handle extremely cautiously and circumspectly if it does not want to further intensify reservations about its predominance. Presumably the same applies here as applies to the relationship between European institutions and intergovernmental decision-making: during normal business, German policymakers can (and should) allow European representatives to take the reins while they demonstratively take a back seat; in difficult situations and crises, however, that will not be possible. We must assume that periods of normal business will become more seldom and crises more frequent in the EU. For the time being, therefore, nothing is likely to change in Germany’s new role. It will demand a great deal of skill on the part of German politics, and considerable European community spirit on the part of the German population. ▪

is one of Germany’s most renowned political 
scientists and historians of ideas. He teaches at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.