In the aftermath of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, it is worth reflecting on Germany’s vision for the future of the EU. The European question has certainly become more urgent, and there has been a palpable shift in Berlin’s attitude. Over the past quarter of a century Germany has engaged energetically in the EU’s constitutional debates, and its view was a product of its ideological commitment to building the European Community and the European Union. But now Germany’s attitude has become more pragmatic and transactional. The question at the core of the European debate in Berlin has become quite simple: How can we once again demonstrate to our citizens that it pays to cooperate, and that we are achieving better results by working together?
The German government believes that this is no time for lofty visions, or for waxing lyrical about an “ever closer union”, but rather a time for getting things done. This is a sense shared in much of the rest of the EU, as leaders have articulated in their Rome Declaration. Making the case for European cooperation through better results has become the mantra of the day. This sounds both banal and challenging. EU watchers know very well how difficult it has become in domestic environments in many EU member states to argue the case for Europe against the swelling tide of nationalism and protectionism.
In Germany, many citizens wonder why their government is always trying to cooperate, when other member states seem to only have concern for national interests. This is not strictly accurate, but it is a view that has gained ground over the past few years – a different version of the Euroscepticism that has taken hold in other countries. It is exactly this perception that Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has set out to challenge, in order to build momentum for a renewed commitment to the EU among the German public. A Union disintegrating with Brexit, and under fire from Washington, clearly needs more commitment - and not just in words.
In an op-ed for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Gabriel argued last week that Germans needed to stop obsessing over their high net contributions to the EU budget. “The truth is that Germany is not a European net payer, but a net winner… Each euro that we pay into the EU budget multiplies and flows back to us.” He even went so far as to suggest that Germany do something “outrageous” in the next debate about Europe’s budget: “Instead of fighting for a reduction of our financial contribution to the EU, we should signal our willingness to pay even more.”
This is a foreign minister very much on the campaign trail, endeavoring to position his Social Democratic party (SPD) as the progressive European force in the country. But Gabriel’s message goes beyond campaign maneuvering and his own party. In fact, it is a matter of national interest. The German economic and political model benefits greatly from the EU, and Berlin continues to believe that with the EU it can best contribute to shaping a world order that serves German and European interest at large.
The fact that that the global order and the European project are now under threat has only spurred Berlin to take up the fight. The choice to invest more in the EU politically - and perhaps also financially - is a natural one in this context. With the existential threat of breakup in front of them, EU members find it easier now to think about what they would lose if the Union ultimately failed.
There is a whiff of a “European spring” in the air in Germany these days, with people taking to the streets every Sunday, and in growing numbers, in more than 50 cities, large and small, across the country. The message of the Pulse of Europe initiative which started off in late 2016 and has expanded to other European cities, is far from revolutionary: We care about the Union’s survival because it helps us live up to our values of human dignity, the rule of law, freedom of speech, tolerance, and respect. We challenge the way our Union works, but we want to protect it.
Such a message seems to have touched a nerve among those Europeans who have so far been the silent majority, but have woken up after the shocks of the UK referendum and the aggressive US presidential campaign. It is remarkable that it has taken almost 10 years of European crises for Germans to ultimately start rallying behind Europe. A major reason is that today’s crisis is not about “others” (“the Greeks”, “the refugees”), but about their own way of life in the future.
This awakening could yet present German politicians with a perhaps unexpected window for greater maneuver on EU issues. But while the government has confidence in its own role in Europe, it needs other EU members to play ball, and to help build traction for European cooperation. In terms of modes of cooperation, flexible forms have made it back into German thinking lately, and European leaders have put the notion of “different speeds” onto the agenda of their Rome Declaration. It is important to understand, though, that this latest round of discussion on flexible cooperation and different speeds is different from the more academic debates in the 1990s and early 2000s (EU watchers will remember the thought paper by Wolfgang Schäuble and Karl Lamers of 1994, or the Humboldt speech by then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in 2000).
Until recently, successive German governments have been hesitant to embrace flexible modes of cooperation. The danger of disintegration - through an ever more complex legal and political environment - was seen as outweighing the benefits of flexibility. That being said, Germany has been among the countries contributing to engineer greater flexibility, for example to build the Euro, and Schengen. The overall vision, however, has always been that of a homogeneous “Rechtsgemeinschaft”.
In the current environment, however, there has been a re-think on the added value of flexible modes of cooperation. The argument now looks somewhat reversed. Flexibility that shows tangible results of the benefits of European cooperation is seen as a way to prevent the Union from further breaking apart. This view is shared by a majority of EU countries, as shown by a recent ECFR study conducted in the 28 capitals.
Today’s emerging flexibility debate is driven by the pragmatic necessity to achieve better policy results, and to speed up delivery on pressing challenges. After the moment of contemplation in Rome there is no time for a rest. The crumbling of the post-World War II order is real, and Berlin risks losing the comfortable environment that Germany has managed to thrive in for so many years. How will the country’s leaders respond to the risk of losing this favourable position? For now, the response has been to take the bull by the horns, and to invest German power in rescuing the European model.