Germany is ready to lead in Europe
1 July, 2017
Under the cover of business as usual, a silent revolution is taking place in German attitudes to Europe. The habitual reluctance of post-war Germans to assume responsibility, to express their preferences and to lead in their neighbourhood, is giving way to an acceptance of Germany’s special role in Europe. This new attitude is more functionalist than triumphalist, but it is underpinned by considerable confidence.
In contrast to some media coverage, this domestic confidence is reflected in attitudes around Europe. In the eyes of the “professional class” of civil servants and experts working on EU affairs, Germany is a singular player. It has the most dense networks of interactions, tops most countries' list of 'essential partners', and is ranked as the most influential member in the EU overall. This view corresponds with the self-assessment of the German professional class.
But whether the German public shares the professional view is another question. A comparison of three issues discussed under the banner of “more Europe” reveals a marked preference of the German public for action at the national, rather than European, level, suggesting at least a potential split between the public and elites on policy issues such as common defence structures, a European border police, or integrated foreign policy. It could be that most Germans are still unwilling to shoulder the burden of the largest most influential actor in the EU.
If such a split exists, however, it is likely minimal. The commitment of the German public to deepening European integration, as measured in a November 2016 Dalia Research/ECFR survey, ranks slightly above the EU average. And since then, polling data indicates a further shift in public opinion towards more pro-Europe views. According to the latest Eurobarometer data, German trust in the EU grew by 20 percentage points since the autumn of 2016, only surpassed by a 22 percentage point change in the Netherlands.
Europe, it seems, will be a reason for continuity in German politics beyond the upcoming elections. Both the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are strongly in favour of protecting and strengthening the EU; the differences among them are to be found in the fine print rather than on principle. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger, chairman of the SPD Martin Schulz, are both integrationists by conviction: the former more pragmatic, the latter more passionate. As things stand three months before the elections, Europe can continue to rely on German support to move integration forward. (abridged)
The author is the European Council on Foreign Relations Senior Policy Fellow. The article was originally published by the ECFR.