22nd Oct 2020


Who's punishing whom?

  • Is Angela Merkel acting as the EU's vicar? (Photo: EPP (Flickr))

For the last 50 years, Germany has been on the lookout for an integrative force to bring together the states and peoples of Europe in a happy family. This year, it hit pay dirt, unwittingly: Europe, it seems, is increasingly united in its suspicion of Germany. With another financial bail-out brewing, the trend can only continue.

The reason is clear. In grand European projects where the EU governments are highly dependent on one another, Germany has apparently lost patience with the principle of mutual trust. It is not just in financial and economic policies, but also in areas such as home affairs cooperation that Germany is stepping up its control of its partners.

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Some even whisper that German European policy has entered its punitive phase. Irked by its partners' failure to keep to the letter let alone the spirit of the law, Germany is leading the calls for new forms of conditionality to be slapped onto EU policies. Delinquent member states can expect a sharp rap on the knuckles. Some have already received one.

Romania and Bulgaria have found their attempts to join the EU's passport-free travel area blocked until Berlin and Paris are satisfied that they have corruption and cross-border crime under control. The Schengen Evaluation Mechanism and the oversight role of the EU's borders agency, Frontex, look set to be boosted. And, of course, Germany is also keen for member states which deviate from the path of economic righteousness to face repercussions.

Berlin's wagging finger is galling to other member states, that's for sure. Yet, analysts identify a more ominous cause for any Germanophobia: the "normalisation" of the country's European policy. Berlin's harder tone, they say, shows that it is now seeing the EU in narrow cost-benefit terms like everyone else. Germany is out for what it can get. It is unshackling itself.

But such shrill analyses are hard to reconcile with reality. Germany's recent efforts to bolster the Euro and the Schengen zone show that the country's commitment to the EU stretches far beyond simple cost-benefit calculations. So why is Germany being beaten up by analysts and commentators, lambasted for straying from a pro-European line which in reality it is seeking desperately to maintain?

A phenomenon identified by sociologists back in the 1970s offers a clue. They suggested that "Organisational Punishment" occurred in voluntary associations that have unrealistic goals and principles. The association's inevitable failure to live up to these goals leads to certain of its members being systematically blamed—organisational punishment.

Sociologists based their ideas on a study of churches, organisations which advocate the admirable, and highly unlikely, idea of a community drawn together by brotherly love and solidarity. By dint of his presumed virtues, the vicar is supposed to ensure that the whole community lives up to these values. His inevitable failure makes him the victim of organisational punishment.

After all, the vicar can only sustain the idea of a community if he keeps his congregation coming to church. And they won't come to church if he is too hard on them. This puts him in a fix. If he turns a blind eye to their indiscretions he will leave himself open to accusations of a lack of moral leadership – and probably to exploitation. If he attempts to discipline them, they will accuse him of behaving in an unchristian way.

And so, back to Germany, the EU's exasperated vicar. For years, the country took it upon itself to keep alive the unlikely values supposed to underpin European cooperation - solidarity, mutual responsibility, trust. Its commitment to these values exposed it to exploitation. At times, it was German money alone that sustained the myth of the EU's non-materialistic values.

The Eurozone crisis has now put Germany in the classic vicar's dilemma. When Berlin initially tiptoed around other member states it was accused of a lack of moral leadership. Now that Berlin is showing leadership, it is accused of turning its back on European values and bullying the others. As sociologists would recognise, this is a case of an irritable vicar disciplining his flock. It is not a vicar turning his back on his values.

Of course, other member states may be frustrated by what they see as a lack of critical self-reflection on Berlin's part: why does Germany insist on bashing its partners for failing to live up to EU values and goals which were always unrealistic? But a measure of self-delusion must be part of any vicar's makeup. And the other member states have been benefiting from this for years.

The writer heads the Brussels Office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He is writing in a personal capacity.


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

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