20th Mar 2018


Flexing muscles, losing reflexes: Germany's role in Europe

  • There is a can-do attitude in Germany usually associated more with Americans than Europeans (Photo: Oxfam International)

Europe is often described as the old continent - retired from world history, wishing to be left alone to enjoy its pension benefits in peace. Alas, world history has not retired Europe.

On the contrary, in the last five years it has returned with a vengeance in the form of the euro crisis, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, war in the Middle East, refugees, and terrorism.

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In this storm, Germany has emerged as the EU’s main player. Rather than Brussels, as we pro-Europeans assumed, Germany’s Federal Chancellery has become Crisis Control Central.

At the same time Germans seem to have re-invented themselves. The country has acquired a different feel from only a generation ago. The mentality change is for the better, but there is a concern: Without even realising it, Germans risk losing their European reflexes.

When Eastern Germans streamed into Western Germany 25 years ago, everybody expected the state to deal with the situation. The response to today’s refugees is completely different.

A huge number of initiatives have sprung up across Germany to address basic necessities, such as help to navigate bureaucracy, housing, medical aid, and language classes.

Until recently some 15 percent of Germans undertook regular voluntary work. That number must have much increased over the last months.

Although by demography Germany is an old nation, it seems rejuvenated. There is a can-do attitude usually associated more with Americans than Europeans.

We will manage

When chancellor Angela Merkel famously declared “we will manage,” she did capture the spirit of many Germans, who seem to cherish the challenge of doing something meaningful beyond the daily pursuit of individual happiness.

There could not be a more powerful rebuke of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s portrayal of Western democracies as devoid of values than the many volunteers in Sweden, Germany, and beyond who help refugees to have a decent life.

In a continent shot through with self-doubt, these volunteers are setting a powerful precedent of optimism and courage - in sharp contrast to the rising right-wing parties which thrive on doom and gloom.

When Merkel overturned her policy in summer and let hundreds of thousands of refugees seek asylum in Germany, she set a counter-example to the shoddy treatment of refugees by the Hungarian government.

She said that Germany would refuse engaging in a race to the bottom of who treats refugees worst. Her message was clear: Values count, even in less comfortable times.

So far so good, but there is a problematic side to the story.

While many Germans feel they lead by example, to other European governments, Merkel looked unreliable by changing policy on something as sensitive as immigration overnight.

Indeed, the shift came unannounced. As late as July the German government had signalled a more restrictive attitude by tightening asylum laws. It stands to reason that Merkel’s announcement increased the number of people starting the perilous journey to Europe.

Other European governments can argue with some plausibility that Germany now tries to solve a problem that it has partly created itself, even though the number of refugees was already high before summer, making the discussion on re-locating a mere 120,000 of them across the EU seem detached from the extent of the challenge.


This is the second time that the Merkel government made a major policy U-turn overnight in response to events.

The first was the decision, in 2011, to phase out nuclear energy and to speed up the transformation of the country’s energy production to sustainable sources, in response to the Fukushima disaster.

Both U-turns have to do with Germans’ 20th century traumas: In the Cold War, the country was one of the most likely theaters of a hot war, with nuclear annihilation a real risk, while refugees stirred memories of second world war.

This then is the greatest risk of the new German leadership: As big countries do, Germans could become too busy with themselves and oblivious to the fact that other Europeans do not always have the same outlook.

Most French simply do not share Germans’ nuclear Angst. If Germany wants to keep Europe together, it needs to put a premium on being reliable, avoid sudden policy shifts, and stress pragmatism over ideology.

As recently as 2014 a systematic policy review of the German Foreign Office confirmed that in all its actions, Germany should use its European reflexes.

For a decade now foreign leaders, journalists, and think tanks have egged on German politicians to assume European leadership. But while Europe needs leadership, a German Europe will not work.

The new French decisiveness on Syria may be good for the balance within the EU, but smaller countries in particular should defend Brussels as a counterweight to big member states.

Europe can benefit from German dynamism, but only if Germans maintain their European reflexes and heed the most important lessons of our history: That division in Europe is the greatest threat to a central power and that going it alone has only resulted in disaster.

Michael Meyer-Resende, @Meyer_Resende, is executive director of the Berlin-based NGO Democracy Reporting International. These are his private views

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