European Council on Foreign Relations

The Berlin notebook

Image from Hakan DahlstromA year from now, at the end of May 2014, a new European Parliament will be elected. Before that, in September, the Germans will vote - deciding to keep or eject Angela Merkel, and the make-up of the governing coalition.

ECFR is using this opportunity to launch a new series on our blog – the “Berlin Notebook.” The idea is not only to follow the elections closely from Berlin, and deal with the various questions it throws up, but also to observe the shifts and changes within the new German government in the months ahead of the EP elections. This should help us understand whether or not the year 2014 will be a tipping point; whether or not it becomes the moment when Europe reconciles itself with its citizens, gets serious about integration, starts building a fully-fledged European democracy, and overcomes some old fashioned notions of sovereignty and nationalism.

Looking back, the historical time-line from 1913 to 2014 is important: in his wonderful book “The vertigo years”, Philipp Blom argues that the 19th century needed a decade to die. Between 1900 and 1914 people were anxious about the speed of the changes happening – back then it wasn’t the internet and drones, but the telegraph and airplanes. They intuitively felt that something new was announcing itself at the horizon, but they didn’t know what. In the same vein, we are experiencing the slow death of the 20th century just now. Tectonic plates are shifting.

Nearly all the paradigms that were valid in Europe for so long – stability, social security, and equality, let alone the global strategic and economic supremacy of the “West” – have been at the very least considerably challenged during the past decade. Thus, even without war, democracy could be endangered in Europe. The risk is no longer, as Merkel put it at the beginning of the euro crisis, that “if the euro fails, Europe fails,” but that if the euro stays in its current form without legitimacy, European democracy itself is at stake. Visibly, the “more Europe” argument is under strain from many populist voices and forces across the EU. But maybe a “different Europe”, a more legitimate one, may be on the horizon.

“All eyes on Berlin” is already the dominant mood of the international community. The – unfortunate – dynamics between the coming German and EP elections might well be that if Germany does not signal some policy change (or at least some accommodation to the arguments of the European South) the EP elections may turn into an anti-German vote. And indeed: the outcome of the German elections is key for the future of Europe and progress with the euro. Nothing goes without, let alone against, Germany. The “accidental hegemon” will need to take the lead in Europe, whatever the new government looks like. Whereas roughly 60 percent of Germans across all parties are more or less happy with Angela Merkel, many outside Germany – especially in the South of Europe – not only want relief from austerity, but also demand a symbolic gesture that clearly signals policy change. However, as the Pew-Review recently revealed, up to 70 percent of people in Greece, Italy, and Spain are fed-up with austerity policy coming from Brussels; they are angry with their own governments, and – more or less tacitly – they blame Germany for their situation.

There is one main difference between the South and the North. In the debtor nations, citizens protest against Brussels and Europe, but they are even more disappointed by their own governments. In the creditor nations (first and foremost in Germany) on the other hand, citizens may not be happy with Europe and may be especially fearful about Transferunion , but citizens trust their own governments (especially Angela Merkel) to protect them. Meanwhile, as an indicator of elite and popular mood, Germany’s constitutional court is hearing lawsuits on the constitutionality of recent developments in the eurozone (such as this week on the legality of the ECB’s pledge to save the euro, which I will discuss further in the coming weeks).

The biggest troublemaker in the equation is currently AfD – Alternative for Deutschland. Will it receive more than five percent of the votes and enter the new Bundestag? Current polls give it only some three percent. The real danger, however, is that AfD will either steal precious votes from the Liberals (FDP) and conservatives (CDU) so that they won’t have enough votes to run a coalition; or that the FDP will see an unpredicted boom like in the recent elections in Lower Saxony, capturing many voters from AfD in the last second and turning the FDP into a sort of coalition-inherent AfD: a more or less tacit anti-euro force, or at least a party deeply split which will continue its partially euro-deadlocking and integration-delaying strategy within the government.

However, the polling data seem to capture only one aspect of an apparently complex situation in Berlin and how Germany is seen from the outside world: whereas the anger against Berlin seems to grow on the policy side and amongst political elites in the South, the sympathy of people for Germany on the cultural side grows: following a recent BBC poll, Germany ranks highest in the sympathy curve in 25 countries. This is a paradox, which points to a schism between politics and culture. Germany is hip and Berlin is even hipper - how do these two impressions from politics and culture come together? This new blog will try to provide answers, impressions, hints, and observations to these developments.

All bets are off. The German elections are still wide open and the chances that all those outside the country who cannot vote get their desired outcome and a clear signal for the change they hope for is pending. This is the biggest deficiency of European democracy: the result of the German elections will have an impact on most if not all citizens in Europe. But only few have the right to vote!

I'll be updating this blog regularly, and welcome any comments or feedback!

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