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27th Jan 2022

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Germany's new government – what's in it for Europe?

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Twenty-two working groups negotiated for over a month and finally produced 178 pages of text: the coalition agreement of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

In a surprisingly smooth process – no leaks, no public controversies – they prepared the blueprint for the new government which is being sworn in today.

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But what's in it for Europe?

In 2011, in the context of the Eurozone crisis, then Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski said that he feared German inaction more than German power. The remark intensified the debate in foreign policy circles about the need for German leadership.

The coalition agreement found its own formula, noting: "As the largest member state, we will assume our special responsibility in a serving understanding for the EU as a whole." This strikes me as a good balance, acknowledging that Germany's role is special while avoiding the idea of leadership.

The EU does not need special German leadership. Germany's size, economic power and geographical location make it a central player anyway.

But EU partners have a right to know what a German government wants and what it stands for. In the past, German politicians too often gave idealistic speeches and the next day made hard-knuckled decisions to serve German industries.

The coalition agreement signals progress. On a number of major European questions, it provides a clear positioning. One good example is the boiling rule-of-law crisis.

Merkel's blind spot?

In the past, the German government led by Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party first ignored the destruction of democracy in Hungary and the dismantling of an independent judiciary in Poland. Once these became too obvious to be disregarded completely, it slowed down meaningful EU action in support of Hungarian democracy and Polish independent judges.

The coalition agreement now calls on the EU Commission to use the tools in the treaties in a more consistent and timely manner to protect the rule of law in the member states. It indicates that it will support the commission's Covid-19 recovery plan if preconditions, such as an independent judiciary, are met.

Effectively, the new coalition has switched sides, joining the so-called 'friends of the rule-of-law group' including the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. The violations of the rule of law are confirmed in more and more cases which the Hungarian and Polish governments are losing in the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. The resistance across the EU against these violations will stiffen.

The coalition agreement also positions Germany much more concretely in support of democracy, human rights and the rule of law at the international level than earlier coalitions. It acknowledges a competition of political systems across the world, explicitly referring to China, from which it wants to reduce German dependency.

It also criticises political repression in Russia, its countless violations of international law against Ukraine, and recognises the importance of the interests of eastern EU member states.

The agreement has a clear vision of the future of Europe as well. It wants the EU to become a federal state. This clarity is admirable. Usually, the EU is vaguely described as "much more than an international organisation but less than a state".

The EU treaties' famous "ever-closer union among the peoples" suggests a process with no end. It is an invitation to those who want more integration and scares those who do not.

The federal state is a well-established concept. The European level and the federal member states would have guaranteed roles and competences. One side could not take away power from the other side. One would think that people concerned about the expansion of EU powers would like this idea.

Instead of the fuzzy, incremental ever closer union, they would get a guaranteed federal equilibrium.

EU = 'Federal' or 'state'?

But though I like the clarity of the agreement, I am not a fan of the federal state idea. The problem is this: If you say "federal state", Germans hear 'federal', but most others hear 'state'. For Germans, the federal aspect has the positive connotation of guaranteed powers for Member States. For others, the idea of the EU becoming a state is worrying. They see the EU policeman knocking on their door.

More importantly, I see no groundswell of public support for this idea, not even in Germany, where the issue played no role in the election campaign. I also do not see any favourable conditions for as long as we have member state governments that fight against democracy and the rule of law.

Already, it is a problem that Hungarian government and party representatives are co-legislators for the entire EU when they have not been fairly elected. Such problems would become even more acute in a federal state.

EU enthusiasts are facing an 'Icarus' problem. They want the Union to fly high but underestimate that it may be burned by their ambitions. The EU is an essential institution, it has achieved a lot and we are better off in improving its day-to-day working, rather than setting off the next big controversy about a label.

In short, on this point the coalition agreement sounds a bit detached. Otherwise it marks progress, positioning Germany as a proactive defender of democracy. The real test will be of course its implementation.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International (DRI), a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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