The End of the German Moment?

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. By Kanceleria Premiera -, Public Domain,

Historians will probably argue that November 28, 2011 was probably the high moment of Germany’s influence in EU politics. Speaking in Berlin, Radosław Sikorski made a historical remark: “I will probably be first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.” Poland, a country traditionally suspicious to German power, has officially invited Germany to lead.

Germany emerged out of the 2008 financial crisis not simply as Europe’s uber power but also as Europe’s welcomed hegemon. Germany’s leadership was equaled to the success of European project. Many things have changed since then. This “German moment” is fading away. German leadership is contested, resisted, and declared a threat to the EU.

The crisis of German leadership has two dimensions. Many of the EU member states feel at odd with Berlin-supported polices. Germany is facing in the South of Europe anti-austerity governments and societies that resist Berlin’s fiscal policies and it is facing in the East governments and societies that are openly challenging Germany’s refugee-friendly policies. At the same time, German politics is undergoing major transformations – trust in the major political parties and the media is in decline; a majority of Germans disapprove the refugee policy of the government. In short, German politics is not exceptional any more. It starts looking like the rest of Europe – dominated by angry voters, reckless populists, and fears. The question is will “the new normal Germany” be a better leader for the EU or will it become a factor of European disintegration?

It is fair to admit that at present Germany feels less like a leader and more like hostage of the European project. As we have learned from the implosion of the Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia, in the absence of war the collapse of empire (and the EU is a post-modern empire) begins on the periphery but ends only when the center revolts. It was Russia’s decision to exit from the USSR (not the Baltic republics’ aspiration to become independent) that buried the Soviet Union. So, Germany’s devotion to the EU should not be taken for granted. Rather, I will argue that it was Germany’s success – the fact that the country was spared the political and economic problems the other parts of Europe faced – that led to a great extent to Berlin’s failure to read some of the political implications of its policies in the context of euro crisis and refugee crisis. The new, less stable and self-confident Germany paradoxically opens the opportunity for more sensitive and flexible German leadership.

It was Germany’s economic success and political stability in a time when most of the other EU member states were politically and economically de-stabilized that explains Berlin’s belief that austerity policies would not lead to a populist backlash in the South and that a refugee friendly policy would not bring a populist backlash in the East. In the case of the euro crisis, Germany was criticized for a deficit of solidarity, in the course of the refugee crisis it was criticized for an excess of solidarity. But while in the both cases the German government was careful to respond to the sentiments of its voters, what became clear is that German voters were out of touch with the fears of the other Europeans. Now there is a hope that this will change.

Why did what worked in the East did not work in the South?

The paradox of the euro crisis was that Europe was in crisis but the most powerful European state, Germany, was not – rather, Germany was a beneficiary of the crisis. Its government bonds were refinanced at zero interest rates. Its unemployment has declined to a record low. The crisis has resulted in the inflow of skilled labor from countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal, thus reducing the demographic fears of the German public. Germany’s global standing has increased. Thus, Germany has all the reasons to love the crisis not to fear it. Berlin was not in a hurry to curb the crisis, first because it did not suffer from it and second because any quick fix would have put at risk Germany’s major objective: to transform the Union. For Berlin the euro crisis was less a disaster than an instrument to create a Europe of Rules.

Germany’s responses to the crisis are usually traced back to its Weimar experience with inflation (explaining its obsession with price stability), the demographic profile of Germany’s voters (older and afraid of losing their savings), and the intellectual tradition of German ordoliberalism which puts trust in independent institutions like the Constitutional Court and Bundesbank. But we cannot understand Germany’s belief that austerity does not necessarily mean populist backlash if we fail to understand to what extent Germany was shaped by the experience of its own re-unification and the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe. Germany’s outlook on how Europe can be transformed is very much rooted in the experience of these countries. While Germany’s experience with unification and the success of the Agenda 2010 economic reforms could be attributed to the specifics of the German national character, it was in Central and Eastern Europe where German policymakers were convinced that one can have painful economic reforms amounting to the dismantling of the welfare state that need not provoke a populist backlash. The Germans were convinced that outside intervention could result not so much in the de-legitimation of the national democratic institutions but in their strengthening. So Germany’s reform agenda can be summarized as “doing in the South what we succeeded to do in the East” – fostering fiscally responsible EU member states. The Central and Eastern European experience does not explain why Germany wants what it wants, but does explain why Berlin believes that its strategy will work.

But the analogy with Central and Eastern Europe turned out to be misleading. The post-revolutionary recession in most of Central and Eastern Europe was deeper and more painful than that experienced by Southern Europe today. The restructuring to be undertaken was much more radical than that expected from Greece or Spain. The institutions in Central and Eastern Europe were weaker than those in the South today. And the risks of political instability and violence were higher. But at the same time, there are a number of factors that make “transforming the South in the manner of the East” a very risky strategy. The success of the Central and Eastern European transitions, to the extent that they are a success, were preconditioned on several factors that were absent in the crisis-torn South. In the East there was a strong negative consensus with respect to the past, there was optimism about the future, and the younger generations were the perceived winners. In the South, the past is something to be preserved, the outlook is pessimistic, and youth are the major losers. At the time of the Central and Eastern European transitions, there was a lot of certainty about what should be done and the West was the model most Central and Eastern Europeans were eager to follow, while the crisis of the EU was part of a bigger crisis of capitalism and liberal democracy as we knew them. The Central and Eastern European transitions were accompanied by the emergence of the new elites and people had the sense of victory, which was not the case of the South. Central and Eastern Europeans were driven by the desire to change their societies while the majority of the people of the South were fighting to preserve their economic and political achievements. Paradoxically, the hope that Southern Europe can be transformed on the model of Central and Eastern Europe could turn out to be the weak spot in Berlin’s strategy to reorder the European Union.

Central and Eastern Europe’s hostile reaction to Germany’s immigration policy also came as a surprise for Berlin. “I can comprehend only with difficulty,” German President Joachim Gauck confessed, “when precisely those nations whose citizens, once themselves politically oppressed and who experienced solidarity, in turn withdraw their solidarity for the oppressed.”

So why is it that today Central and Eastern Europeans have become so estranged from Germany’s view of the refugee crisis? The Central and Eastern European resentment of refugees looks odd if we take into account three things: First, that for most of the 20th century people in Central and Eastern Europe were preoccupied either with emigrating or with taking care of immigrants. Second, that at present there are simply no Syrian refugees in most Central and Eastern European countries. In 2015, the number of refugees who entered Slovakia, for example, was 169 people and only eight of them asked to stay. And third, that as an outcome of the post-1989 wave of immigration, Central and Eastern European societies are losing population and face severe problems in sustaining their welfare systems.

But while Central and Eastern Europeans’ hostility towards refugees could be shocking to German leaders, it should not be surprising. It has its roots in history, demography, and the twists of post-communist transition, while at the same time representing a Central and Eastern European version of the popular revolt against globalization.

History matters in Central and Eastern Europe, and very often the region’s historical experience contradicts some of the promises of globalization. More so than any other place in Europe, Central and Eastern Europe is aware of the advantages but also the dark sides of multiculturalism. These states and nations emerged late in the 19th century, and they did so almost simultaneously. While in the Western half of Europe it was the legacy of the colonial empires that shaped encounters with the non-European world, Central and Eastern European states were born of the disintegration of empires and the processes of ethnic cleansing that followed. While in the pre-war period Poland was a multicultural society where more than a third of the population was German, Ukrainian, or Jewish, today Poland is one of the most ethnically homogeneous societies in the world with 98 percent of the population being ethnic Poles. For many of them the return to ethnic diversity is a return to the troubled times of the interwar period.

Curiously, demographic panic is one of the least discussed factors shaping Central and Eastern Europeans’ behavior towards refugees. But it is a critical one. Nations and states have the habit of disappearing in the recent history of Central and Eastern Europe. In the last 25 years around 10 percent of Bulgarians have left the country in order to live and work abroad. According to United Nations projections, Bulgaria’s population is expected to shrink by 27 percent by 2050. Alarm over “ethnic disappearance” can be felt in many of the small nations of Central and Eastern Europe. For them the arrival of migrants signals their exit from history, and the popular argument that an aging Europe needs migrants only strengthens the growing sense of existential melancholy.

The failed integration of the Roma also contributes to Central and Eastern Europe’s compassion deficit. Central and Eastern Europeans fear foreigners because they mistrust the capacity of their society and state to integrate the “others” already in their midst. In many Central and Eastern European countries, the Roma are not simply unemployed but unemployable because they drop out of school very early and fail to acquire the skills needed for the 21st century job market. It was the failure of Roma integration that makes Central and Eastern Europeans believe that their countries “cannot do it.”

But at the end of the day, it is Central and Eastern Europe’s deeply rooted mistrust towards a cosmopolitan mindset that divides East and West. Central and Eastern Europe does not have the West’s colonial history and is thus lacking both the sense of guilt but also the sense of shared fate that comes with colonial encounters. In Tony Judt’s words, “from the outset eastern and ‘central’ Europeans, whose identity consisted largely in a series of negatives – not Russian, not Orthodox, not Turkish, not German, not Hungarian and so forth – had provinciality forced upon them as an act of state making. Their elites were obliged to choose between cosmopolitan allegiance to an extraterritorial unit or idea – the Church, an empire, Communism, or, most recently ‘Europe’ – or else the constricting horizon of nationalism and local interest.” Being cosmopolitan and at the same time a “good Pole,” “good Czech,” or “good Bulgarian” is not in the cards. And it is this historically rooted suspicion of anything cosmopolitan and the direct connection between communism and internationalism that partially explains Central Europe’s sensitivities when it comes to the refugee crisis. The Germans' drive for cosmopolitanism was also a way for them to flee the xenophobic legacy of Nazism, while it could be argued that Central Europe’s anti-cosmopolitanism is partially rooted in an aversion to communist-imposed internationalism.

Central and Eastern Europe’s run away from internationalism is not much different than what has happened to the working class in Western societies. In Austria, almost 80 percent of the blue color workers voted for the far-right candidate in the initial run of the presidential election. In the German regional elections more than 30 percent of the same group supported Alternative for Germany. In the French regional elections in December 2015, the Front National scored 50 percent among working class voters.

In an insightful article in Washington Quarterly, Thomas Bagger, the head of the German Foreign Ministry’s office of policy planning, defined Europe’s challenge as the need to transform the German moment into the European moment.

But could it be that Germany, having lost its moment, will be a better leader of Europe.