Berlin is heading towards a grand coalition between Chancellor Merkel’s CDU, her Bavarian sister party, the CSU, and the Social Democrats (SPD). After an election campaign in which European issues were strangely absent, surely the delegations that sat down a month after the elections had to get their teeth into Europe.
By putting Europe on the agenda of the coalition talks at an early stage of the negotiations, the delegations wanted to send out two messages: firstly, Europe matters and, secondly, Conservatives and Social Democrats are optimistic about shaping a joint agenda, so no need for the rest of Europe to worry about Berlin not getting its act together. Clearly, healing the eurozone is of vital interest for this country and one of the priorities laid out by Chancellor Merkel for the future government. However, what leaked out on the confidential discussions last week was not quite matching these ambitions.
To start with, it is, arguably, rather strange to see European affairs merely been dealt with in a subgroup (“banking regulation, Europe, Euro”) which is part of a larger working group on Finances and the Federal Budget headed by Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Olaf Scholz, First Mayor of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. A subgroup? Hardly a sign that Europe is prioritised despite the presence of prominent figures such as Martin Schulz and Markus Söder, the Finance Minister of Bavaria. One cannot resist the comparison with the Convention on the Future of Europe convened in 2002, which did not have a working group on “EU institutions” because the issues on the table were so controversial that they had to be dealt with across different working groups. On major issues such as pending decisions on banking union, the SPD’s debt redemption fund, or referendums on EU affairs put forward by the CSU, there was clear and open controversy. Are these really merely tactical moves by the SPD to keep an independent profile from the CDU, especially in the run-up to the European Parliament elections (with Martin Schulz to be nominated as the PES’s candidate for the presidency of the European Commission later this week)?
Not surprisingly, a working document of the discussions that was leaked by the Young European Federalists (JEF) provoked an outcry of Germany’s young pro-Europeans. Apart from a general commitment to the EU this short draft consists of an odd mix of buzzwords for CDU/CSU and SPD: the principle of subsidiarity, a strong role of member states in public services, an EU budget prioritising growth, employment and innovation and the already agreed financial transaction tax. It is unclear what stage of the negotiations it reflected when it was leaked, but the paper ridiculed what are meant to be serious discussions.
Public debate in Germany is currently all about the alleged tapping of Angela Merkel’s phone by US intelligence. At the same time, perhaps to the surprise of those looking at Germany from the outside, the public continues to be largely immune to the most recent wave of criticism from the US Treasury challenging Germany’s external trade surplus and the risk that arguably the German model poses to the healing of the eurozone. I am not suggesting that one has to agree with such allegations, and certainly any German government should respond to such criticism with good arguments.
What is worrying me, however, is that most Germans are still not aware that there is also an intra-European challenge regarding the ‘German model’, which for me is much more important than the Washington angle. At a crucial point for the future of the eurozone, Germans remain rather clueless about what is at stake. How long will it take for political leaders in Germany to prepare the public for the hard choices and for the sacrifices that Germany and other eurozone countries will have to make, to build the future for a prosperous and cohesive economic and monetary union? The German President Joachim Gauck was right to address this state of mind which almost resembles sleepwalking in his speech on German unification day in October:
“Our country is not an island. We should not cherish the illusion that we will be spared from political and economic, environmental and military conflicts if we do not contribute to solving them.”
The president lacks political clout, yet he is an accepted normative lighthouse across the country. But he remains a rather lonesome voice on this issue so far – and I doubt whether Germans listening to his speech actually understood the point that the president tried to make. The German public cannot be blamed for this wide-spread ignorance (or innocence?). Where are the politicians today who have the courage and wisdom to unchain the Europe debate?