Germany is not the world's liberal lighthouse
These days Germany is hailed as a liberal lighthouse, standing firm amidst the falling darkness of an illiberal age.
It is a flattering image to Germans. Educated in the history of the 20th century, we admire the unsentimental determination of Britian’s democracy in that fateful year of 1940, when fascists and communists subjugated Europe and liberal democracy seemed hopelessly passé.
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Would it not be nice if we could play that role for once? But can we?
Germany’s democracy rests on strong foundations. A tried and tested constitution with robust checks and balances, a legal class with a historic sense on how democracy can be destroyed, systematic public education for democracy, an aversion to war and violence, and significant funds to promote peace and democracy at home and abroad.
Add a thriving economy with full employment and you wonder what could go wrong. A lot, unfortunately.
For a starter, Germany is no exception in having a nationalist right-wing party that challenges the status quo. If you look for exceptions, Spain and Portugal are the countries not affected by that phenomenon.
The ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AfD) is an ‘anti-system’ party, borrowing language and attitude from dissidents of former Communist Eastern Germany - an implausible and an immoral claim. East German dissidents ended up in prison, not on the nation’s evening talk shows, as the AfD does.
The party quickly gained traction when chancellor Angela Merkel unexpectedly opened the borders for refugees last year. Apart from the social-conservative CSU party, which only stands for elections in Bavaria, there was no party in parliament that opposed the move, making the AfD seem like the real deal for opponents.
The government soon reverted back to the previous restrictive immigration practice. The number of people arriving in Germany has sharply decreased due to Merkel’s deal with Turkey and border fences across the Balkans, while deportations of rejected asylum-seekers are increasing.
Merkel’s party has recently adopted an election platform that reverses liberal policies such as double nationality. In a gloomy world, Germany’s liberal light may seem more shining than it is.
But even the move to the right is not likely to satisfy many AfD voters. Merkel has become identified with a centrist, overall liberal position that is not good enough for voters who lean more to the right. The German election then shapes up differently to the French elections.
There the conservative right under former prime minister Francois Fillon may be able to sap support from the extremist Front National. If he succeeds, France may overcome its fixation on the Front National and resume a more traditional left - right competition between parties that do not question democracy.
It is possible that France will strengthen the foundation of its democracy, while Germany’s consensual culture, accentuated by years of coalition government by the two major parties, may not offer the clear choices that a politicised society is looking for.
The result would be a political scene where the democratic parties are transfixed on the rise of the far-right, as has been the case in Austria for decades, and thereby feeding the populist “us against the rest” narrative. The liberal light would shine ever less brightly.
The lighthouse talk is flattering Germany’s liberal class, but it encourages moral grandstanding at a time when Germany will have to make hard choices.
If the conservative Fillon becomes the next President Germany must make compromises on the liberal agenda in the interest of keeping the EU together. Also, the government must find possible deals to engage Donald Trump on Germany’s and Europe’s core interests like Nato’s role and the support to Ukraine.
Ethos of responsibility
It is not a good time then to revive the 19th century German myth: “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen”, which can be translated as: “Let the world be healed by the German character”.
It is a time to focus instead on what Max Weber labelled Verantwortungsethik - an ethos of responsibility that carefully weighs the possible effects of policy. Not for fear of doing something bold, but to avoid that unintended consequences create more damage than good.
A responsible Germany must do everything to keep the European Union afloat and make the necessary compromises.
It should accept that the right wing in Europe has the same democratic legitimacy as any other political direction, as long as it respects democratic rules of the game. Germany is no lighthouse, showing the way to safe shores for ships adrift.
It is sailing on the same stormy sea as its European partners.
Rather than harbouring illusions of exceptionalism and sailing with full sails into the storm, it should navigate with foresight and in close contact with its partners.