A European Germany? A German Europe? Thomas Mann’s famous quote of 1953 has been intensely discussed in European public opinion over the past six years as a result of Germany’s disputable role in managing the euro crisis. While the country’s relative political clout has grown steadily within the EU (partly also due to the relative weakness of other Member States such as France or Italy), not all Member States have perceived Berlin as key to the solution but rather as part of the problem. Citizens in some EU countries – particularly in the EU’s south – have blamed Germany’s insistence on harsh austerity measures for the socio-economic hardship as Marta Paradés rightly highlighted in her recent blog post. At the same time, however, other Member States like Finland, the Netherlands or Austria have felt quite comfortable siding with Germany for holding up common principles of fiscal consolidation and structural reforms which they regard to be essential in order to bring European economies back on track.
Either way, Germany’s role within the EU has changed. More than ever, Berlin is at the core of decision-making when it comes to tackling the multiplicity of challenges that the EU is currently facing. But how do German citizens feel about this new role and how has their attitude towards the EU and the other Member States changed since? Traditionally, there has been a general pro-European consensus both in politics and within German society. The country’s European vocation was deeply tattooed in its DNA after WWII ─ not least because this was the only way to gain back sovereignty among the community of countries. Within German society, for a long time a rather uninformed but widespread pro-European consensus prevailed which was marked by no real controversies and very little media coverage over the future direction of the European integration process. As long as European integration did not affect daily life of Germans negatively, they gave their tacit consent paying only limited attention to its actual impact.
This may explain why support for the EU in Germany has not eroded dramatically in the past years. – in contrast to the situation in those Member States struggling hard to overcome the woes of the economic crisis. Unlike the citizens of Member States deeply affected by recession and high youth unemployment, Germans never felt the crisis. Thus, compared to the debate in other European countries, the German debate looked somehow strangely detached from the political drama surrounding it. The concrete pros and cons of how to fix the eurozone crisis hardly made it beyond intellectual circles.
Yet, the way how Member States treated each other including the verbal escalations and accusations between Berlin and its European partners have left its traces on how Germans perceive the EU. On the one hand, the foundation of the right-wing Eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2013 illustrated the growing dissent over the way the euro crisis was managed and the fear of citizens that German economic interests were in danger in case of a ‘transfer union’. On the other hand, it was also the longstanding but suppressed criticism of an overly bureaucratic and elitist EU interfering too much in national sovereignty that found an outlet in the AfD.
Confronted with the unprecedented numbers of refugees arriving in Germany over the past months, the sympathy of the German population for the EU has been put to another, much harder test. This is well reflected in the figures of the recent Eurobarometer suggesting that between spring and autumn 2015 the image of the EU suffered severely (total positive view down 45 to 34 percent; total negative view up from 17 to 27 percent). While the euro crisis didn’t arouse real passion or hostility as it was not tangible for most Germans, the refugee crisis is much more explosive as its impact is visible on every German street from Constance to Kiel. It affects the identity of every citizen and seems to openly reveal what divides Europeans and to cover up what unites us.
For Germans the feeling that their government is clearly not in the driving seat when it comes to finding a European solution – something Germans could rely on during the euro crisis – is new and uncomfortable. Chancellor Merkel has to fight on two fronts. Domestically, she has to defend her policy of an open boarder approach against forces within her own party and against a very vocal opposition from the right-wing AfD as well as from xenophobic (un)civil(ised) movements like Pegida calling for limiting immigration and suspending Schengen. On the European level, Merkel is struggling to convince her European partners to follow her call for European solidarity and a comprehensive European solution. Those already sceptical about the European project currently find enough arguments to be confirmed in their position. Those holding on to the EU and its values, on the other hand, are at the verge of despair as doubts grow about the capability of the EU, which should, in fact, be perfectly equipped to tackle transnational challenges such as the refugee crisis, to deliver what is needed. After years of crisis talk, there is a serious risk that Germans might become tired of the European project.
These developments show that even a rather pro-European country like Germany is not immune to an increasingly negative debate on Europe. In future blog posts I intend to shed light on the new role of Germany within the EU and how this influences the action of politicians and the perception of the public alike. What is the German position on the unprecedented challenges the EU is currently facing and which domestic developments might be of European interest? How will the view of other Member States be reflected upon in the German political debate? Finally, I would like to look into citizens’ attitudes towards the EU and ways to reconnect them both with Brussels and with their fellow Europeans.
The way the crisis of the past six years was handled went at the expense of empathy, solidarity and a common understanding of shared values among European citizens. It’s time to reconnect.
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