tl;dr: With the UK heading for hard Brexit and Trump as US President, Germany has to meet its destiny and start leading Europe from the center.
“It may be that a saner, happier Germany may yet be founded among the people who for so many centuries were in the vanguard of culture and who gave Europe the masterpieces of music and philosophy. People say that this old Germany is dead, but perhaps it is only asleep.” – Archibald R. Colquhoun (1909), p. 249.
When Colquhoun wrote this passage at the very end of his article on ‘German Hegemony in Europe’, it was a faint wish in a time that saw the old continent on the brink of war, with a belligerent Germany at its center. Before the Great War it became increasingly clear that the old order in Europe, and in fact across the European-dominated globe, could no longer hold. More than a century later the feeling has returned, with British Prime Minister Theresa May arguing for hard Brexit and Donald J. Trump, being freshly inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, hoping for collapse of the European Union. The period we call ‘postwar’ has ended in such a way that it brings the German question to the European table again. In the 19th century this was the question of how to achieve unification of the various German states into one nation state – what kind of political constitution should it have and what territories are to be included. With German reunification on 3 October 1990 this particular reading of the German question was solved once and for all. However, as the saying goes ‘geography is destiny’ and given the unraveling of the postwar order in Europe, with Britain on the way out and America disinterested in the continuation of old alliances based on shared values, the pivotal country in the middle of the continent is suddenly faced with a new German question: how can Germany lead Europe when it has to.
One century earlier, this leadership was feared and contested, for good reasons. The militaristic Germany Colquhoun and his contemporaries were dealing with, was a country too big for Europe, yet too small for the world, as Henry Kissinger once noted. Its central geographic position, its demographics, its economics made it the coming hegemon of the European order before World War 1. Yet due to its focus on military and colonial power, the Kaiserreich perceived itself as being denied its rightful ‘place in the sun’. Of course, economically Germany was a global power already and you could argue that the Kaiser and his minions were just looking at the wrong statistics. But as mislead empires tend to, this first German nation-state went off in smoke on the fields of Flanders and kept Europe an unsafe place for the following decades, leading into the horrors of World War 2.
Fast-forward to our days, German leadership in Europe is requested by its neighbors, required by the multiple crises the European Union faces and, at least initially, met by reluctance from German political elites. Of course, the request for German leadership, especially during the Eurozone and Ukraine crises, was at the same time tempered by prevailing fears of a too dominant Germany. The specters of two World Wars, both initiated by Germany, still loom heavily underneath. And until very recently, Germans showed a Pavlovian reflex against a greater role for their country, least of all being leaders of Europe. It should not be forgotten that ‘Leader’ in German means ‘Führer’ and for obvious reasons this is a difficult concept until this very day. Over the past year and a half, probably since the refugee crisis, but especially since the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016, Europe’s indispensable nation shows more and more willingness to lead. This time, German leadership in Europe is not fired up by nationalist or imperialist overtures, by illusions of its own grandeur, but demanded by the impossible situation the European Union finds itself.
When Britain voted to leave the European Union, and especially after Theresa May’s talk on a hard Brexit – pulling out of both the common market and the customs union – while at the same time threatening its former allies with a ‘new business model’ based on low corporate taxes and flirting with the incoming Trump administration, Germany was suddenly alone at home. The UK used to be an arbiter of liberalism and market economics in the EU and thus a natural partner for Germany. Together, the trio of Germany, the UK and France balanced different aspects of the EU and gave Germany the option to focus exclusively on its mercurial role as the biggest economy in Europe. Without the UK, Germany becomes the sole powerhouse on the continent, the only one of the big member states to wield any significant power both at home and abroad. Instinctively, German politicians refocused on France as the crucial partner, with the Franco-German axis now reframed as a Germano-French axis. However, this old alliance can only become beneficial again for the EU if the French manage to keep Marine Le Pen and the rightwing-extremist Front National from the presidency later this year. There is some hope after the conservatives nominated François Fillon as their candidate and probably even more since Emanuel Macron surges in the polls as a pro-European, pro-German alternative on the center-left.
The most immediate threat to the EU and the strongest call for German leadership comes from across the Atlantic. With Donald J. Trump as 45th US President, the foreign policy towards Europe will change. He is no Atlanticist, he perceives NATO not as a value-based community of like-minded countries but as a transactional insurance policy. If you don’t pay US (pun intended), we don’t protect you. Moreover, Trump sees the EU as a competitor of the US, as an alliance intended to beat them in global trade and openly advocates its further disintegration along the lines of Brexit. We do not know what actually will happen, probably not even Trump knows really what he wants to do with Europe, but from everything we understand so far it is clear that Europe has to step up and start to master its own future. The increase of German defense spending this year is one first signal to the US, but also to Russia, that Europe is not intending to become a maneuverable mass between the two. Of course, there is a delicate balance to be found and stronger European defense cooperation should not make NATO redundant. The North Americans, which includes Canada, need to remain involved within the transatlantic security architecture. But regardless of what Trump will bring for Europe, the continent has to become used to standing on its feet rather fast.
The German approach to leadership in Europe is unlike any of its earlier attempts and unlike most attempts by other former hegemonic powers. The term for it is ‘leading from the center’ and it implies a multilateral, cooperative form of consensual leadership, with Germany as an equal amongst others, yet as an initiator of action and honest broker of different interests within the EU. This ‘dialectics of leadership’ rests on a renewed Germano-French relationship and closer ties to smaller EU member states, especially the Benelux and Baltic countries, Austria and Scandinavia. I would also include Italy in this framework in order to strengthen North-South ties and balance a too strong emphasis on the northeast of the continent. This approach to leadership is indeed very German and rests on the German historiography and make-up of the German realm before the Kaiserreich. It dates back to four centuries of the Holy Roman Empire as a German-centered association of independent states – from the Council of Constance and later Friedrich III in the 15th century, to its dissolution by Napoleon in 1806 – bound together by institutions, rules and norms, and certain cultural ties. This is the old Germany Colquhoun was referring to, the saner and happier Germany that was supposedly dead or asleep. The good news is: the Germany of today is also that saner and happier Germany. In this existential crisis not only of the European project but also of the West itself, it needs to meet its destiny.
The featured image to this post is from Frédéric Sorrieu, ‘La République universelle démocratique et sociale’ (‘The universal democratic and social republic’) from 1848, the year of the great European revolutions.