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Can Germany recover its integrationist compass amidst COVID-19?

Once an integrationist ‘engine’ of Europe, Germany’s enthusiasm for an ever-closer European Union has waned in recent years. Can COVID-19 help it recover its ‘integrationist compass?’ Luuk Molthof examines the possibilities in this blog post.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, many in the European Union have looked to Germany to lead the European response. Yet in recent years, Germany has seemed hesitant to be the leader and public goods provider that its European partners would like it to be. During the Eurozone crisis of 2010-12, for instance, the German government received much criticism for its qualms about bailing out its Southern friends. More recently, France, in particular, has shown increasing frustration over Berlin’s refusal to talk about serious EU reform. Many commentators have attributed Germany’s apparent reluctance to assume greater responsibility to a waning ‘European vocation’. According to Josef Janning, for instance, Germany has lost its ‘integrationist compass.’ Even though German elites and public continue to cherish the idea of ‘an ever closer union’, they are no longer interested in putting it into practice.

As a result, German Europapolitik has lacked ambition and has become characterised by the politics of ‘muddling through.’ At first, it seemed as if Germany would also shun a bigger role in the COVID-19 crisis. But, to the surprise of many, the German government stepped up its engagement and, together with France, announced an ambitious recovery plan for the EU – suggesting that Germany hasn’t quite lost its European vocation yet.

In fact, the momentum provided by the COVID-19 crisis and Germany’s EU Council Presidency provides a window of opportunity for the ‘integrationists’ in Germany to try and re-direct their country’s European policy. To be successful, however, they are advised to shift their efforts from defending the European project against attacks to trying to alter the contours of the European debate – from a narrow question over the benefits of the EU to the broader question over the future of European integration. Only then will they stand a chance of restoring Germany’s integrationist compass.

How Germany lost its integrationist compass

Post-war Germany was long known for its ‘European vocation’. West-German chancellors, from Adenauer to Kohl, saw the European project as a chance to strengthen Germany’s economy, increase its security, restore its international reputation, and improve its relations with its neighbours. Moreover, by binding itself into the European Community, the former West-German government was able to allay some of the fears over a too-powerful Germany and, thereby, pave the way for German reunification. It is not an overstatement, then, to say that Germany has greatly benefitted from the European project, perhaps even more so than any other EU Member State. In the words of Dyson and Goetz, this resulted in Germany being  “willing to punch below its weight, to be less assertive than other member states in defending its interests, and more willing to bear a disproportionate share of the financial costs of integration”.

But this willingness gradually declined after reunification, after which Germany’s European policy slowly became less cooperative, less generous, and less ambitious. There were several reasons for this shift, but the primary one was the loss of urgency. After the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, completing the ‘ever closer union’ was simply not as pressing anymore. At the time, West-Germany had (already) achieved its most important geopolitical and economic policy objectives. It had placed itself in an excellent economic position with the completion of the Single Market and the introduction of the Economic and Monetary Union, it had dismantled its security dilemma with France, re-established itself as a power in Europe, and secured the reunification with East Germany. Germany’s integrationist elite had been incredibly successful in using the European project to achieve its geopolitical and economic objectives. But now that these goals had been achieved, the ‘integrationists’ saw their influence over Germany’s European policy waning. In the years after reunification, the integrationists were increasingly side-lined as large parts of the German elite and public increasingly lost their interest in completing the European project.

Can Germany recover its integrationist compass?

The recent ambitious Franco-German COVID-19 recovery plan for the EU indicates that Germany is still willing, at times, to bear a disproportionate share of the costs of the European project – even if primarily to preserve rather than advance the current state of affairs. This suggests that Germany hasn’t quite lost its European vocation yet and offers hope for the integrationists.

It is true that outspoken integrationists appear to be in the minority in Germany at the moment. But integrationists are still present in each of the mainstream political parties[1]. However, they do face an increasingly uphill battle in taking charge of Germany’s European policy. This is not just because many of their colleagues have resigned themselves to the status quo, but also because of the binary structure of the European debate in Germany over the last few years – pro and contra EU – which has made it difficult for the integrationists to make their mark. As a result of the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and other similar parties throughout Europe, Germany’s mainstream parties have focused their efforts on countering the Eurosceptic narrative – outlining past achievements and current benefits of the European Community. This was clearly at display in the last European elections in 2019, where it was difficult to discern any significant differences between the campaigns of the different mainstream parties – despite significant differences in party programmes. The elections seemed more like a contest over who was the most pro-European party of Germany than a contest over concrete ideas for the future of the Union.

This framing of the European debate in Germany benefits both the populists and the ‘status quoists’. It benefits the populists because it allows them to mobilise protest-voters and Eurosceptics. It benefits the ‘status quoists’ because it allows them to comfortably defend the European project without being pressured to come up with concrete ideas on how to move the European project along. The structure of the debate severely disadvantages the integrationists, however, as it leaves little room for debating concrete policy proposals and makes it difficult for them to distinguish themselves from the other ‘pro-Europeans’.

The integrationists are at least partly responsible for their own predicament, however. They also contribute to the binary structure of the debate by actively participating in it. As integrationists, they obviously value the European project and are inclined to defend it against attacks. And there’s something to be said for doing so, of course. But it is very much in question whether it should be their priority. Unlike in many other European countries, the Eurosceptic movement is not particularly pronounced in Germany. All parties in the Bundestag, apart from the AfD, identify as pro-European. The current debate, then, gives way too much weight to the Eurosceptic side and obscures the heterogeneity of the pro-European side.

The integrationists would therefore be advised to rather focus their efforts on trying to shift the contours of the European debate, from a narrow question over the benefits of the EU to the broader question over the future of the European project. The COVID-19 crisis and Germany’s EU Council Presidency provide excellent windows of opportunity to do so.  Not only has the COVID-19 crisis led to increasing calls for European solidarity, it has also raised demands for more structural reform. If successful, such a debate would force the ‘status quoists’ to come out of the closet – not being able to simply hide behind their support for the EU any more – and would determine whether the integrationist paradigm has really been lost or whether it can be revived.

The stakes

While the chances of a revival – to the extent of a full recovery – may be slim, it is still crucial for the EU that Germany recover its integrationist compass. The European project may have lost a lot its urgency for Germany after reunification. Yet one does not have to be an EU federalist to see that many of today’s challenges – whether they be the COVID-19 crisis, climate change, or an increasingly unstable geopolitical order – simply cannot be solved alone and need a coordinated response. In other words, many of these challenges require ‘more Europe’ in some shape or form. The European project, then, still has urgency and the integrationist paradigm still has relevance today. While the integrationists face an uphill battle in putting Germany back on the ‘ever closer union’ path, it is very much in Europe’s – as well as Germany’s own – interest that they succeed in doing so.

Luuk Molthof is a senior research fellow at d|part, a nonpartisan political think tank based in Berlin. He wrote his PhD thesis on Germany’s role in European monetary integration.

[1] Such as Norbert Röttgen in the CDU, Martin Schulz in the SPD, Konstantin Kuhle in the FDP, Franziska Brantner in the Green Party, and Martin Schirdewan in the Left Party.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.