It might seem counterintuitive to argue that Germany, with the largest economy in Europe and a dominant position in the European Union, finds itself struggling politically on the continent. Indeed not so long ago the dominant narrative spoke of Berlin’s confident leadership and increasing EU integration for the foreseeable future. But narratives, even ones that have lasted decades, can change quickly; today the cross-currents of European politics have shifted abruptly away from Berlin’s vision for a more tightly integrated European Union. For Germany, the principal European questions now increasingly revolve around how to salvage the goal of building a larger Europe, and whether the EU’s division into two parts—an integrated core and an increasingly disconnected periphery—is already under way.
Germany is struggling with the question of Europe’s future because national politics have punched a big hole in what used to be a confident, if at times stodgy, European sense of self. In the past the delicate relationship between Germany’s national priorities and the overall direction of the European Union meant that being German entailed being European in equal measure. Today the dictum has been reversed; Europe needs to decide how “German” in its vision of the EU it wants to be in order to determine its future. Thus far the government of Angela Merkel has assumed that, when all is said and done, the majority of European Union members will opt for a vision of a common European home that hews closely to the German vision. Even as multiple rebellious voices reverberate across Europe, the elite consensus in Berlin still seems to be that Germany’s economic heft and key role in funding the common budget will carry the day. There are, however, signs even in Germany that this belief, once a sure bet, is now a much riskier gamble.
Germany’s immigration policy is being contested not just on the eastern flank of the European Union, but also increasingly from the north: Scandinavia is struggling to cope with the influx of MENA migrants. On economic issues, Germany’s Eurozone policies continue to come under fire from Europe’s south. France, Germany’s key partner from the inception of the European Coal and Steel Community, has had its politics ever more paralyzed by the approaching election. While the more mainstream contenders grapple with political scandals that have fueled the volatility of the French electoral map, the National Front’s surge may be the most important indicator of where France is heading. Should Marine Le Pen’s party emerge victorious in the upcoming election, Germany’s choices will become dramatically curtailed. Developments in France will be essential—even more so than the waxing political chaos in Italy—to Germany’s position in Europe and its ability to shape the future of the European Union.
No single event has narrowed Germany’s vision for the EU more than the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. The subsequent election of Donald Trump as President of the United States changed what was once dismissed as a fluke of Anglo malaise into an undeniable rip current roiling the political waters of the West. Germany’s insistence that the European Union won’t have to choose between the core-periphery model mentioned above and that of a loose confederation of European states has been called into question by political developments.
The question now firmly on the agenda for Berlin is whether Germany can continue to lead the European Union on its present trajectory without the British counterweight and with France’s drift. The first casualty of the shocks that have reordered Europe over the past two years is the illusion that a more integrated Europe can be willed into being by elites pursuing a post-Lisbon course, notwithstanding the deepening fault lines between the Eurozone and the countries that continue to use their national currencies. The idea that EU federalism and EU enlargement can somehow be reconciled was the central dilemma that Berlin’s adroit tactical shifts were able to deflect for years. No more—genuine federalism, and especially the single currency, require national convergence; if European politics have shown us anything in recent years, it’s that convergence and consensus are commodities in short supply. Germany’s choice today, therefore, is either a “two-speed” Europe of core and periphery, or a radical restructuring of the European Union into a zone of loose confederation. To put it differently, the Eurozone must integrate to save itself, but deepening the integration of a German-led core will inevitably make the outlying areas of the EU peripheral while also reordering the periphery’s ability to influence the overall course of the European Union. To assume that such a new European Union, running at two distinct speeds, could still be run from the center is at best a dubious bet.
For quite a while already in fact, the European Union has been running not a two but many different speeds. Up to now, Berlin, through the adroit application of political pressure in combination with ad hoc crisis management, has managed to keep this ungainly edifice from falling apart. But this process does not seem to be working any longer. The idea of a “European core” (Kerneuropa), promoted by some in Berlin more than a decade ago, seems to be coming to pass, but at the expense of the grander German idea of a community of Europe in which the forces binding EU member-states together are stronger than the ones pulling them apart.
As of late the temptation in Germany is growing to pursue what EU Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker outlined in December 2016: in effect, a two-part Europe, one in which the EU would have to “invent a different orbit” for those who do not want to be part of the ongoing integration. The pressure to engage in a fundamental reintegration of the Eurozone has only grown following the election of Donald Trump, reflecting beliefs (premature at best) that the United States is poised to drift further away from Europe. Another factor driving the debate in Germany towards the Kerneuropa model is the disagreement between the Visegrad group, led by Poland, and Berlin on the key issue of refugee resettlement.
Ultimately, the answer to Germany’s gamble to hold on to the idea of a larger European Union, warts and all, will be decided not in the offices of the European Commission or the European Parliament, nor even inside the German Chancellery. The fate of Germany’s post-Lisbon EU vision of both a wider and more integrated Europe will depend on the outcome of this year’s elections. The volatility of German politics today, with the rise of the SPD and growing support for the anti-immigration AfD party, makes it a mug’s game to try to predict how all this will turn out. We will all just have to wait for the German electorate to speak in September.