What do the Germans want from Europe? As the European Union prepares for the intergovernmental conference in Turin, the German government is pressing for one more stride towards integration. Michael Maclay describes the group of true believers behind Germany's European policyby / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Last May, the people of the Schwarzwald village of Oberkirch commemorated VE Day. More than that, they celebrated it with enthusiasm, sensitivity and panache. The mayor, Willi St?chele, hailed the birth of peace and freedom. Visitors from Oberkirch’s twin towns in France, Belgium, Britain and the eastern part of Germany were entertained at a round of concerts, exhibitions and parties. The hosts struck an appropriate balance between solemn remembrance and hope for the future. The high school orchestra put on an ambitious programme including Gorecki and Britten. On a painfully beautiful spring day, amid the birch and the pines, there could be no better image of the new Europe and Germany’s civilised and central role within it.
Oberkirch is barely ten kilometres from the French border, and its people have compelling practical reasons for being good Europeans. Their economy is enmeshed with that of France. They identify their prosperity and their security with European integration. The Kapellmeister was adamant that he saw no threat to German identity from Brussels. There was unhesitating support for the European Union and explicitly for the Maastricht treaty.
Yet when I quizzed people over their wine glasses on whether they were ready to embrace a single European currency, it was a different story. Either they were uncomfortable with the idea, or they doubted that it would ever really happen. There was no equivocation from the politicians, such as the eloquent Mayor St?chele. But as yet they have not brought voters with them. Polls continue to show that Germans are overwhelmingly opposed to a single currency; that they dislike the idea of enlarging the EU to the east; and are doubtful about paying the higher budget contributions this will require.
The political class is not-yet-disheartened. Witness Chancellor Helmut Kohl restating the fundamentalist case for European integration-to prevent another European war-in his Louvain University speech in February. Or his deputy, Wolfgang Sch?uble, who told Prospect last year that the politicians must lead, not follow, public opinion. With few exceptions, the German political elite wants another substantial step towards European integration. Squeezed between the doubts of their own citizens and the scepticism of other member states, it is not clear that they will get it-at least not soon. Yet Germany’s “European ideology” remains the most powerful magnetic pole in the continent’s debate with itself.
Helmut Kohl’s good Europeanism is instinctive, broad brush and idealistic. To opponents it appears hopelessly vague, as well as wilfully blind to the real conflicts inherent in the project, and oblivious to the risks involved in charging ahead to meet self-imposed deadlines. Kohl’s over-arching vision is vague. But within the political class there has been no reluctance to fill in the small print.
Even for the younger generation of political thinkers in Germany, Europe is an identity, not a location, a mission and a destiny rather than a geographical expression. They are the true believers, and their commitment to the cause is more serious and single minded than in any group of people around the continent, probably including Brussels. The debate is led by the ruling Christian Democratic Union but joined by the other political parties, the press, and the Bundesbank. The blueprint is constantly being refined and re-examined in an exhausting and continuing round of seminars, workshops and discussion groups across Europe-from grey industrial towns in northern Germany to the sunny villa on Lake Como once used as a summer retreat by Konrad Adenauer. The process is not introverted. The CDU believers work closely with representatives from allied parties around Europe, both to learn from their experiences and-with some success-to implant their own ideas.
So what is the government blueprint and who is writing it? Roman Herzog, the federal president, spoke of the United States of Europe at the Bertelsmann International Forum in K?nigswinter at the end of January. Kohl himself stopped using the expression when he saw that it alienated more people than it attracted-he insists that no one wants a “centralised superstate.” The CDU model is for a sophisticated federal system, strongly decentralised wherever possible (like Germany’s own federalism)-but capable of providing a continent-wide policy where this is required. The true believers believe that it is only through intensive co-operation and integration that the EU can be internally coherent and internationally effective, whether combating crime, currency speculation or security threats.
Much of this is familiar from the original Monnet-Schuman vision. The Germans turn it into a characteristically thorough Gesamtkonzept, spelling out how all the facets of the European debate-from the single market to the single currency, from the intergovernmental conference (IGC) to EU enlargement to the east-are interlinked. You cannot have monetary union without at least some progress towards political union; you cannot have a common foreign policy worth the name without majority voting; you cannot have enlargement without more majority voting and a commitment to currency stability on the part of the new members, and so on.
There are, of course, creative tensions. If Europe is an ideology, its dialectic is complex. In recent years, there has been something of a routine. Karl Lamers, the CDU spokesman on Europe in the Bundestag, sets the pace with audacious working papers which often implicate other senior figures, but do not necessarily commit them. In the present series he signed the first paper himself. The second one, which made more impact, also carried the signature of Wolfgang Sch?uble, who has been pitching for a role as the party’s conscience on Europe. The most recent paper was a joint venture involving Lamers, Sch?uble and Rudolf Seiters, another party heavyweight. The Chancellor’s office, the Bundeskanzleramt, was shown drafts of these papers at each stage but it kept sufficient distance from the exercise to protect the Chancellor from any infelicities.
The underlying continuity comes one level below these senior politicians. There is a cadre of thirty-and-fortysomethings who bring much of the energy, imagination and detailed thinking to the process. One is Hans-Joachim Falenski, bespectacled, intense and persuasive, who works in the secretariat of the CDU parliamentary group; he played a central role in the drafting of the recent working papers. Michael Mertes in the Bundeskanzleramt has been a trusted adviser and speech writer to the Chancellor for many years. He has written a number of newspaper articles which have functioned as trial balloons. He and his colleague Norbert Prill wrote as far back as 1989 about a Europe of “concentric circles,” foreshadowing the recent proposal in the Lamers paper of a “hard core” of EU members willing to pursue integration at a brisker pace than the rest.
There is similar continuity on the official government side, notably in the shape of two influential career diplomats: the Chancellor’s private office “hit man” on European affairs, Joachim Bitterlich, and the permanent under-secretary at the foreign office, Hans-Friedrich von Ploetz, nick-named Pol Pot by his colleagues. Among elected CDU politicians, these people have their counterparts in rising stars such as Andreas Schockenhoff, Friedrich Merz and Brigitte Baumeister. What they all have in common is a strategic vision of where they want Germany and the EU to go. There is an impatience in their manner which makes them seem more ruthless than the idealistic Lamers, and certainly more single-minded than the acutely political Sch?uble.
That is not to say that they are inflexible or unable to adapt. In 1994, when the Lamers/Sch?uble paper floated the idea of the hard core, there was irritation from the CDU’s coalition partners and uproar from some of Germany’s EU partners. The paper also contained some particularly wild ideas: for example, a recommendation that the European commission should increasingly take on the attributes of a government. After the storm, the hard core proposal was played down. The next paper, involving Rudolf Seiters, put a more moderate and better worded case. But the effect had been provocative-it set the agenda across the other member states, giving the Germans the intellectual initiative to add to their existing political and economic weight.
This urge to lead the debate raises its own problems. The Germans are painfully aware of their own preponderance within Europe and do not want to be seen steamrollering their partners. But they realise that, to carry opinion at home, they have to show that what is in Europe’s interest is in Germany’s interest, and vice versa. In his Louvain speech Helmut Kohl repeated the refrain that “Germany has more neighbours than any other country in Europe” and therefore a greater national interest in ensuring stability outside its immediate borders. This is almost the opposite of Malcolm Rifkind’s formulation that British interests can on occasion be best protected by foregoing influence in Europe.
The true believers sometimes make mistakes. The famous Lamers/Sch?uble paper started with a long geo-political preamble explaining that the Germans must be integrated properly into western Europe, otherwise there was a danger that they would revert to solving problems to the east “in the traditional way.” This was a clumsy formulation of a belief which is one of the driving forces behind European integration-that German unilateralism is not good for anyone. Few believe that German unilateralism would be of the military kind. But other uncomfortable forms are often suggested-a special relationship with an unstable Russia, for example.
When the German plea to be “bound in” came up at a party-to-party meeting last year, a French representative exploded at what he described as the werewolf syndrome. “You people are like the man who turns up at the police precinct in New York just before midnight and says: ‘It’s a full moon, I can’t trust myself, I am turning into a werewolf, you must lock me up.'”
Is this blackmail? Nicholas Ridley could not have been more wrong with his gibe about the single currency being a Bundesbank racket to take over Europe. Bernard Connolly, the former EU official, has rendered some service, for all his exaggerations, in describing Emu as a plot by French Enarques to take over the Bundesbank. The point is that the German political class is willing to give up its most treasured postwar asset, a hard currency, for what it believes Germany stands to gain from European unity. One more irreversible step towards integration is the German goal. In the next two years the government will struggle to bend Europe’s two overriding policy themes to that end. The first-the single currency-is clearly integrationist, but looking less certain now than at any time since the Maastricht treaty was agreed in 1991. The second-enlargement-may or may not be integrationist, depending on the arrangements which accompany it.
it has been one of the axioms of the true believers that enlarging the EU and deepening it are not in conflict. But reality may prove less pliable than the blueprint. Enlargement is certainly central to German concerns: for their own historic security reasons they are determined to move the eastern frontier of the EU beyond their border with Poland. The economic rewards of enlargement should be greater for them than for others. They will also be most vulnerable to the illegal export of goods and people if the central and eastern Europeans do not find a home in the EU. But the Germans will need support from the British on enlargement; and where the Germans turn first to their institutional primers, the British feel for their wallets. Even if the Germans are prepared to pay more for enlargement, it will clearly not be possible to extend the agricultural and structural funds, as they now exist, to large rural countries like Poland or Hungary. The logic of enlargement could thus point to fragmentation.
The single currency, too, has become fraught with difficulty, exacerbated by slow growth in the European economy. The public debate over the currency is now intensifying in Germany. It could be that the tide will turn against it-led by the opposition Social Democrats, the Christian Social Union (the CDU’s sister party), the press, small business, and the Sparkassen local banks. But just as the “little people” start to voice their nervousness about the single currency, and the SPD and CSU seek to exploit this, corporate Germany is beginning to believe its own propaganda about the advantages. The bigger banks and companies have shifted perceptibly, in the light of their experience of a wounded ERM, over the past two years: maybe the stability of the D-Mark could be better assured at the core of a continent-wide currency. Meanwhile, German exporters are finding that an appreciating D-Mark is making it more difficult to compete with Italian and British exporters, and are also attracted by the logic of a single currency. The Bundesbank is harder to read. With some qualifications it is publicly in favour of the single currency. But it may be playing a long game, in the hope that it can scupper the currency through rigid adherence to the Maastricht convergence criteria.
Even single currency enthusiasts in Germany concede that it will be difficult to go ahead on the basis of 32 per cent popular support. There will also be no point in proceeding without France. In private, the CDU true believers are sharply critical of the more nationalist trend they observe under President Jacques Chirac. But those anxious to write off the Franco-German relationship are likely to be disappointed. It has served those countries too well, and matters too much to wither on the wine. The key calculation for the French will be whether the single currency (their brainchild) still represents the best route for preserving their influence and prosperity.
So if German public opinion does not revolt and the French economy comes good, will the true believers get their way? Few other member states will be in a position to resist. The Benelux countries have lost influence through domestic divisions; the Italians through implosion; the Spaniards because their government is fading. The CDU party network has won over the key players in the Dutch CDA and the Spanish Partido Popular, which is set to take over in Madrid. There will only be one member state-Britain-with the weight and the bedrock of alternative principle to offer resistance.
In EU debates the British and the Germans notoriously agree on the detail, but disagree on the overall concept. They see eye to eye on free trade and the single market, deregulation and subsidiarity. On institutional reform they are, however, at odds. The German approach invariably starts from the position that a joint foreign policy is not possible so long as one member state can apply the veto; while the British ask awkward questions, such as: “Would outvoting Greece in the council actually solve the problem of Macedonia?” The Germans see an EU foreign policy as essential to their national interest. For historical reasons, they need European cover in their relations with central and eastern Europe. Many in the foreign policy elite also regret their attempt to play a more forceful role in the former Yugoslavia.
If the IGC , beginning at the end of March, is to succeed, it will not be the result of complex wrangling over the number of commissioners, the weighting of votes in the European Council, or even the opening up of a few marginal areas of EU activity to qualified majority voting; rather it will depend on being able to say afterwards that Europe has equipped itself to deal more effectively with a future Bosnia.
The worst outcome of the next 12 months would be an historic clash between Britain and Germany to a backdrop of public wrangling at the IGC and a loss of faith in enlargement and the single currency. But the true believers do not want to break with Britain (“the slowest ship”) if they can avoid it. The best alternative is a new trilateralism between Germany, France and Britain. It would include British acquiesence in (but not necessarily membership of) the single currency, and German and French willingness to embrace policy reform to permit enlargement at an affordable price-all in the context of a modest, workmanlike IGC. Explicit trilateralism could alienate other members states, but it may be more acceptable than the hard core periphery model.
At the very minimum, the German policy elite wants to be able to say that if the next stage of EU integration is stalled, it was not its fault. But most of them want a great deal more than that and genuinely fear the consequences of a failure to “bind” Germany into an EU political and foreign policy process worthy of the name. Will the people-not just of Oberkirch and of Germany but of Europe-go along with the prospectus of the true believers, even in modified form? Michael Mertes, one of Kohl’s closest advisers, recently wrote that it was difficult for the new Europe to be democratic-there is no European demos. The point about consent has been well taken. The blueprint is neither as brittle nor elitist as it was. But as the debate about Europe’s future becomes more fractious, Germany’s true believers are not giving up on the promised land. n