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Do the German elections matter?

20. September 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

As journalists from across Europe flock to Germany to report on the federal elections this coming Sunday, the question that is asked by many is “Does their outcome matter for Europe?” There is no simple answer to this. Indeed the visions of the major parties on the future of the eurozone and the union as such to this day remain rather unclear – the candidates just don’t talk about them. I speculated in a blog piece in April that it was really only a question of time until the euro hits the campaign – well, generously put, this was wishful thinking. But really, I simply got it wrong.

For different tactical reasons, both the current coalition government of Chancellor Merkel and the major opposition parties, the Greens, the Social Democratic Party and the Left, remained mostly silent on the euro. And with an overall mood of complacency in the country there was no real need to respond to public demand apart from the odd prediction about a new chapter in the Greek drama. So in one of the most formative moments in the history of the European Union, with Germany playing a major role in shaping the future EMU, Germans are pretty much clueless about what to expect on the euro after September 22.

Well, no need for Germans to be wary , so it seems. Colleagues such as Ulrike Guérot and Julian Rappold have recently dissected the positions of the parties on the future of Europe and plotted out what to expect from different election outcomes. Both concluded that the upcoming elections are likely not to change overall German policy or make Germany speeding up with Eurozone reform even if a different coalition made it into power.

I overall agree with these predictions, which of course raise a lot of questions about the prospects for the currency union in the coming months. But I want to focus on a wider point here that has been raised elsewhere, but so far has been largely overlooked by German political elites. This is a subject to be tackled by the next government: The question that is asked increasingly outside of Germany is “Is Berlin still with us?”

Two narratives started to spread that challenge what used to be a certainty about Germany. These two narratives are unfolding in slightly different communities – the EU crowd on the one hand, and the security community on the other. If these narratives continue to be around, and indeed merge, they might put the next German in a rather uncomfortable spot with long-standing partners.

1. The first is the “Germany plays its national card and is willing to go-it-alone” narrative. It is well known in the meantime and encompasses the observation that Germany in the course of the euro crisis developed a good sense of its national interest and used its clout to impose its preferences for the Eurozone architecture on other members. A less prominent facet to this narrative in the continental European debate, but quite present in Britain and the US, is the prediction that the eurozone with its struggling southerners has made Germany look for alternatives elsewhere, notably the emerging economies. “The Germans are bigger than the eurozone”, to put it in a nutshell.
2. The second is the “free-rider” narrative of Germany surfing happily the waves of economic globalisation, with an exports model that fits into the demand of the day, while consuming global security that others provide for. The abstention in the UN Security Council on Libya still resonates, as does Mali – Berlin celebrating 50 years of Franco-German reconciliation while letting Paris do the dirty job in Africa. And then, Syria – aren’t the Germans out once again? “If only the world was a happier place, but it isn’t, and the Germans are cherry-picking the nice bits”, such is the storyline.

From a Berlin perspective I have to say that none of these narratives are entirely convincing to me, but I can see why this current coalition triggered these perceptions elsewhere. Clearly, even without agreeing one has to acknowledge they exist. And such views are likely to spread further unless a new German government made its positions on its European and international choices clear again, and acted accordingly. I don’t see a great deal of awareness over these issues here in Berlin. But I do believe that there are serious questions out there about Germany being a reliable partner, and these questions need a response from the next federal government in Berlin.

I’ll get back to where I see the next government placing itself with regard to these two narratives once the dust settles next week.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Help the Bruised French out of the Corner!

23. May 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (1)

There has been a lot of bad news last week: the Eurozone is further contracting, France is moving into recession and the EU has been dramatically losing support all across Europe according to figures published in a Pew poll.

Watching President Hollande’s Élysée address one year into his presidency one saw a cornered head of state fighting for his survival at home and against a growing mistrust in Europe towards the French willingness and ability to reform. Not surprisingly, President Hollande, in a desperate attempt to lift the spirits of his fellow Frenchmen, started off his speech with the French leadership in Mali. Not surprisingly, the French president then tried to gain ground vis-à-vis the dominant German neighbour by coming up with a ‘European initiative’: a real economic government, a strategy for investment, a European Energy Community and a eurozone budget. While there might be doubts about the depth and the impact of his proposals one has to acknowledge that the French president did come out of the corner.

In Berlin, however, one hears a lot of derisive commentary about France these days and there are indeed clearly different views about the future architecture of the eurozone. But I saw a man who believed in what he said, who warned that the recession caused by austerity was threatening the very identity of Europe. A President who insisted that his country had made its choice for Europe right from the start, who in the course of the crisis has been trying to “shake things up in Europe” and who is increasingly frustrated about the lack of response from Berlin. A frustration that is likely to expand also to his social democratic friends in the SPD, despite Hollande’s presence during the celebrations of the SPD’s 150th birthday this week. Hollande is watching his country being put into the camp of the ‘poor southerners’ and being publicly accused by the President of the European Commission of not understanding the opportunities of globalisation. What a humiliation for a proud nation to being graciously awarded an extra two years to cut down its deficit – in terms of communication I found this a disaster.
We have got to the point where a public blame game is going on that undermines and disempowers even the most potent leaders in Europe – how does this create the urgently needed trust among citizens that their politicians will eventually manage to find a way out of the crisis?

In all this – and it feels almost absurd living and working here – Berlin still feels like an island of peace. Recession? Didn’t the most recent numbers suggest that the German economy continued to grow, albeit mildly? And doesn’t the minor growth rate support the chancellor’s argument made continuously during the crisis that Germany cannot lift the rest of the eurozone on its own? A lack of citizens’ support? Doesn’t Germany score best in the Pew poll, with 60 per cent of Germans still in favour of the EU despite taxpayers’ money being used for the bailouts?

I wonder if Angela Merkel sometimes wakes up in the morning and asks herself whether she is Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice’s fantasy world, Merkel’s Berlin is full of absurdities these days. As the crisis is threatening to tear the union apart, Frau Merkel enjoys a never ending round dance around herself and an abundance of what I would like to call ‘conversations of comfort’. Not that it is her who actively triggers them – they just seem to happen. Just last month she conversed with the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the proud representation of Deutsche Bank in Berlin. Just having published a biography on Merkel’s foreign policy Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung, led the conversation: no drama, no real challenge, just pleasure and comfort and agreement, and the Polish Prime Minister doing the job for Merkel by raving about pretty much anything Merkel and German. The venue was packed on this occasion and politics, business and the media gathering all seemed to be a bit in love with the lady that holds court in the most non-courting way: she just sat there and enjoyed it as seemingly everybody else. A few days later, it felt like the whole of Europe was hanging on her every word when Frau Merkel conversed with the editors of a women’s magazine in a trendy Berlin theatre, chatting about cooking and what she likes in men.

When are the media starting to do their job properly? I really hope for German and French national televisions to gang up and convince Merkel and Hollande to battle it out openly in a TV duel. One of Merkel’s ways of dealing with potentially uncomfortable adversaries is by simply ignoring them – a strategy that seems to work and make her look even stronger. With a few exceptions, she hasn’t even given her social democratic challenger Peer Steinbrück the dignity of a direct address yet. The worst thing that can happen to Hollande in his attempt to contribute to the future architecture of the eurozone now is to be ignored by the German Chancellor. Berlin should know its responsibilities.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

On Axes and Party Politics: the End of Europe’s Predictability

30. April 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

In a commentary last year on the eve of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty I wondered to what extent the notion of ‘the Franco-German axis’ was still a useful framework to analyse politics in Europe. I argued that in the course of the euro crisis, economic and monetary policies in Europe have become an issue of political majorities along party families rather than of axes such as the Franco-German. Much was at stake in rescuing the euro, I argued, and political leaders travelling to European summits were forced to be increasingly responsive to their electorates—which I believed was good news for democracy. Forget about the Franco-German axis and embrace party politics as a sign of political maturity of the European Union.

I have been challenging myself on this point over the past months on various occasions and, what can I say, I am not at all convinced. As much as those small pockets of europeanised party strategists would like to see it, there is no real alignment of the European left yet, determined to jointly win back majorities to shape a ‘social Europe’ as the new eurozone is in the making. Neither is there a solid conservative bulwark led by the German chancellor to europeanise the notorious Swabian housewife. Rather, the strategies that governments embrace these days in navigating the crisis reflect a much wider repertoire. And while it seems that the old and rather predictable game of summits, axes and treaty reforms is over, the rules of the new game are yet to be written.

In the German context, Peer Steinbrück, the social democratic candidate for the 2013 general elections, is far from leading Europe’s socialists in the reconstruction of the eurozone. Indeed for tactical reasons he chose not to even try and challenge Angela Merkel in what has become her domaine réservé. Or might he be pulling the strings behind Hollande, and the French Left is doing the messy job for him now? (Trying to undermine Merkel from the outside is likely to have the opposite effect, but quite frankly I don’t believe in the existence of such witty tactics anyway). Martin Schulz, recently branded “an extension of Adenauer by social democratic means” with a whiff of respect by, of all papers, the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is in his ambition to become the joint candidate of Europe’s social democrats for the next president of the European Commission, doing a much better job. However, Schulz has just disappointed those looking for order on the Paris angle by seconding Angela Merkel when she was personally accused by leading French socialists of dominating and ultimately destroying Europe.

I still stick to the observation that in the course of the crisis, European Union affairs have been politicised to an unprecedented degree. Party politics matter. But for those (including myself) who predicted that the rather predictable old order (‘the Franco-German axis’ ‘the net contributors versus the recipients’, ‘the Weimar Triangle’ etc.) would make way to a similarly predictable order formed along political colours and ideologies have been proven wrong.

The truth is: things have become utterly mazy and therefore rather unpredictable. Now it is for Europe’s great minds to make sense of the new rules of the European power game, of political colours and ideologies, of institutional quarrels (prominently featuring the Commission president these days), of reflexes of national pride, of the new power of domestic constraints, of old balance-of-power thinking, of the shadow of history returning, and of a longing for rationality that is expressed in Europe’s elites turning to scholarly knowledge (and, not surprisingly, failing to find answers). Welcome to the politics of unpredictability.

One thing is for sure: Those who hold the key to understanding the new game will be shaping and, ultimately, winning it.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Europe – Absent?

25. February 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (1)

This is my first entry in the Eurozone 2013 blog. Based in Berlin, in the following months I will comment on the steps taken by EU leaders to reform the Eurozone from the German capital, and will include my observations on the German euro debate.

As it happens, the German President, Joachim Gauck, has just given his long-awaited Europe speech in Berlin. Surely, the outside observer might think, his speech was only one of many interventions in a Europe debate in full-swing in Germany. After all, this is a key country when it comes to fixing economic and monetary union (EMU), with more major steps that will affect the direction and functioning of the eurozone and the overall EU likely to be taken this year. Surely, one might think, in a year of federal elections there will be competing political and economic visions on the future of Europe, and the opposition parties will want to mobilize their respective constituencies in the battle for the chancellery.

You will be surprised to hear that compared to what is at stake, and contrary to what we have seen in the French 2012 presidential as well as in the 2013 Italian election campaign: Germans so far are not fretting about Europe.

I see three main reasons for Europe being largely absent from the campaign so far:

1. Crisis, what crisis? The crisis is not making the headlines, at least for the moment. And with the German economy still doing well, a majority of Germans – unlike fellow EU citizens in other countries – simply do not feel the impact of the crisis.

2. The Merkel factor. Germans tend to trust Angela Merkel’s ability to do what is necessary to help the countries in crisis to recover (and there is a sense of solidarity by now), and to keep an eye on Germany’s interests when negotiating the future make-up of the euro governance with the other euro members.

3. The consensus country. Because of 1) and 2), all opposition parties struggle to challenge Angela Merkel’s conservative party. Adding to this is that Germans currently seem to like the idea of a ‘grand’ coalition of Conservatives and Social Democrats, so there is a tactical temptation for the Social Democrats not to bark too loudly.

Going back to the president’s speech; it is unlikely to trigger a euro debate. The president in the German system does not have political clout and by custom does not get involved in politics. In today’s speech, President Gauck did not cross this line. But the office is traditionally used to shape fundamental debates, and I believe this speech will be influencing the parameters of the Europe debate among the elites in the months to come.

Indeed, the president presented some fresh thinking. Gauck, a pastor and civil rights activist in the German Democratic Republic, put Europe’s citizens at the centre of his hour-long speech. Hardly did he touch on the crisis, on the role of governments, and on detailed suggestions on how to make the European Union work better.

He must have felt that in Germany and across Europe, citizens feel disempowered by the crisis, by nonstop rhetoric that makes them fearful, by complex and technical measures difficult to grasp, and by diplomats negotiating about their future behind closed doors.

Gauck’s language therefore was a language of empowerment. This was the vision of a democrat, a free citizen of Europe, wanting to encourage Europe’s citizens to live up to the task of being citizens in a European res publica, learning to shape their future together.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Blog Authors

Adriaan SchoutAdriaan Schout

Dr Adriaan Schout is Deputy Director Research/Europe at Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International relations. (read more...)

Alexandre AbreuAlexandre Abreu

Dr Alexandre Abreu is a 33-year-old Portuguese economist with a PhD from the University of London. Currently he is a lecturer in Development Economics at the Institute of Economics and Business Administration, Technical University of Lisbon, and a Researcher at the Centre for African and Development Studies of the same University.

Almut MöllerAlmut Möller

Almut Möller is a political analyst in European integration and European foreign policy. She is currently the head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. (read more...)

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