Solidarity or Self-interest? European Integration and the German Question

Image by Marcio Cabral de Moura

Image by Marcio Cabral de Moura

This article by David Miles was originally published by The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in Carnegie Ethics Online on 17 August 2015.

In Klaus Harpprecht’s 1995 biography of Thomas Mann, he highlights a statement which Mann wrote in 1947, which, as Harpprecht puts it, “one reads with a distinct shiver half a century later”:

In barely 50 years […] Germany will, in spite of everything, have all of non-Russian Europe in its pocket, as Hitler could already have if he had not been so impossible.

Less than 50 years later and the country was reunified, but it was a more restrained Germany on the European stage, deeply aware of its past and struggling to bear the economic burden of incorporating East Germany into the West German republic. Still, Mann was in many ways correct, for it is Germany’s financial might and its very deep resources which have so far kept the European integration bicycle pedaling forward. Yet as the recent negotiations over the third bailout of Greece illustrated, there are signs that Germany’s largesse and its willingness to sacrifice its own interests for the sake of the European project have definite limits.

Twenty-five years ago, everything seemed possible. “Do you realize that you are sitting opposite the direct successor to Adolf Hitler?” Chancellor Helmut Kohl said to an astonished Timothy Garton Ash shortly after re-unification. It was evident, said Ash, that as the first chancellor of a united Germany since Hitler, Kohl was profoundly conscious of his historical duty to do things differently.

Germany today is earnest in its desire to be a good European neighbor, but it does not believe that it can or should pay any cost as part of this role. One problem is that economic, not ethical values have become the lodestone of the European Union. As a hybrid construct, the EU lacks the societal dimension which, within the nation-state, is the critical element that allows one group of people to identify with another and which legitimize government actions designed to help one part of the community at the expense of another. People in London or New York accept, perhaps grudgingly, that their tax pounds and dollars may be used to fund projects for the benefit of people in Cardiff or New Orleans. They accept this because they recognize the others as being members of the same community.

Most liberal democratic states in the West succeed by having political and constitutional processes in place which legitimate policy choices that help one part of a society at the expense of another. Here, it is both the acceptance of the specific legitimation process by people (i.e. its constitutional and political processes) AND people’s recognition that they inhabit a common society that ultimately justifies taxation and spending decisions. As Keith Whittington of Princeton puts it, “constitutions cannot survive if they are too politically costly to maintain and they cannot survive if they are too distant from normal political concerns.”

This is a lesson which European, principally Franco-German leaders, often for the best of motives, have refused to take on board over decades. To understand their reluctance to consult with or seek to understand the opinion and belief of the people and the dilemma this has created for the EU, one must recognize the particular type of limited representative democracies which were established in Europe after the Second World War. If a constitutional system could bring the Nazis to power through a democratic election, as happened during the Weimar Republic, this was proof, especially to West Germany’s founders, that to prevent a country committing democratic suicide there had to be certain entrenched principles of democracy and of human rights that neither the people nor their representatives could change. At the state level these “highly constrained” democracies, as Jan Werner-Müller puts it, were characterized by unelected institutions (such as constitutional courts), while at the supra-national level European integration was meant to impose “further constraints on nation-state democracies through unelected institutions.”

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and faced with the prospect of a reunited Germany, French president François Mitterand sought to ensure that German reunification could only happen in parallel with the further integration of Europe, thereby binding Germany’s future to that of Europe. Mitterand told Germany’s foreign minister Genscher in November 1989 that if Germany did not commit itself to the European monetary union, “We will return to the world of 1913.” In Helmut Kohl, Mitterand had a partner who recognized that Germany would have to sacrifice its self-interest to reassure the rest of Europe. It was a policy, as Harold James put it, “derived not only from concern with foreign reactions to German power, and a French wish to harness Germany, but also from a German fear of German power.” This meant giving up the symbol of its post-war strength and stability – the Deutschmark – and committing the country to the European integration project by agreeing to monetary union (EMU). Closer union and EMU were the price that Germany had to pay to reassure its most important neighbor, France. In the heady days of German reunification the normative quest to be ‘the good neighbor’ in a new Europe had a special potency. But how much would Germany be willing to pay to play this role?

Those who criticize Germany for the ‘mental waterboarding‘ of Greece should recall the grumbling in the former West German states over the huge transfers of taxpayer wealth to the former East German states since reunification in 1990. Even today after approximately 2 trillion euros of investment in East Germany, German taxpayers still see a deduction on their paychecks for the so-called ‘Solidaritätszuschlag‘—the solidarity tax. If bailing out their own compatriots was done through clenched teeth, one immediately sees why additional money transfers to southern Europe to bail out Greece or other countries is for many Germans beyond the pale. Yet such fiscal transfers are seen by economists as the absolute pre-requisite necessary to make the eurozone work long-term.

The flaws in European monetary union that became so apparent at the start of the eurozone crisis in 2011 were to some commentators confirmation of just how ill thought-out it had been to allow different countries to share a currency without a political or fiscal union, and without any transfers of money from the stronger to weaker performing parts of Europe. Yet the flaws in monetary union were not just anticipated, but had been predicted from the outset. Far from being a project based on rosy expectations, those driving European integration embarked upon monetary union with the very belief that a crisis would develop at some point, since it was precisely through such challenges that the European cognoscenti in Paris, Bonn, and Brussels believed that closer political and fiscal union would develop. In a very prescient piece in Foreign Affairs from 1998, Timothy Garton Ash laid bare the delusion underlying the ‘crises will make Europe stronger’ fallacy: “It is a truly dialectical leap of faith to suggest that a crisis that exacerbates differences between European countries is the best way to unite them.”

Thinking Strategically, Thinking Morally

Supporters of the EU argue, often persuasively, that its success in promoting stability since World War Two can also be viewed as achieving a fundamentally moral purpose in preventing bloodshed and establishing the conditions in which societies might prosper and pursue policies that are both liberal democratic and ethical in nature. However, others like Robert Kagan have argued that Europe’s ability to operate and prosper in a post-modern utopia after 1945 was only possible because of the American-backed NATO security blanket which underwrote Europe’s capacity to pursue its liberal economic and social democratic policy desires, while safely being able to ignore thorny and usually scary geopolitical questions.

During the frantic negotiations over the Greek debt crisis in late June and July, the intervention by the U.S. government on behalf of Greece was noteworthy. The United States sees the geopolitical position of Greece between Europe and the Middle East as critical to the integrity of NATO’s south-eastern flank. Especially ironic was that it was the U.S., the citadel of free market capitalism and neoliberalism, that was having to remind social democratic European states about the risks of Greece crashing out of the eurozone due to a failure of European solidarity and compassion.

More problematic is whether most European leaders today are even capable of thinking strategically in geopolitical terms, given the dominant role of the U.S. in defending the continent during the Cold War. If thinking strategically can also involve acting (or appearing to act) morally, then the Marshall Plan after World War Two was certainly an example of how to turn bitter enemies into the staunchest of allies. It is far easier to turn so-called ‘solidarity’ into hostility or enmity, as eurozone leaders risk doing over Greece.

On one level, Angela Merkel is right to stress the importance of Europe getting its house in order to meet the economic and social challenges of the future. Her favorite statistic, as John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge note in their new book The Fourth Revolution, is that the European Union accounts for 7 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of its GDP, and 50 percent of its social spending. Europe’s long-term crisis of a declining working age population and people living longer is indeed a serious one, and when the chancellor mentions this statistic, as she did at the World Economic Forum in 2013, it is intended every bit as much for a French audience as for any in southern Europe. The eurozone cannot work in the long-run unless France reforms its economy and introduces the same sort of efficient working practices as Germany, and increases its pension age further. Such French reforms seem unlikely at present, forcing Germany into the position of lobbying for institutions which will bring fiscal, budgetary, and, ultimately, political union closer, but knowing full well that such institutions will be impotent if France doesn’t or can’t play ball when it comes to enforcing rules. Germany, which agreed to monetary union to ameliorate French concerns over reunification, finds itself playing Oliver Hardy to the French Stan Laurel: “Here’s another fine mess you got us into.”

The conundrum which has thus far proved impossible for the EU (as it is currently constituted) to solve is that the bloodless grey institutions which might make Europe function effectively as an economic entity are likely to make it fail as a social democratic project. Reliance on economic orthodoxy at the expense of a set of values that European citizens could relate to has led to growing disenchantment with mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right across the EU. In their 2013 study “The ‘Bubbling Up’ of Subterranean Politics in Europe,” Mary Kaldor and Sabine Selchow found that those who have engaged in new forms of social mobilization and political activity across Europe have cited concern about the failure of democracy as the reason for the engagement and protest. The study found that Europe was ‘invisible’ in public displays of subterranean politics, and when it was visible it was generally regarded as part of the problem as much as part of the solution.

Part of the problem with the rationalist emphasis on process and rules is that the human dimension of Europe has got subsumed underneath the technocrat-heavy institutional architecture found in Brussels. As far back as 2005, well before the financial crisis and eurozone crisis hit, EU commissioner Joe Borg addressed the disconnect between the EU and its people: “As the European Union advances, it seems that we are losing the European citizen somewhere along the way.”

One issue is that until the 1990s, European citizens were rarely asked directly in the form of referenda whether they wanted the ‘ever closer union’ specified in the Treaty of Rome. Nevertheless, as Timothy Garton Ash notes, “for about 40 years, the project of European unification could rely on at least a passive consensus among most of Europe’s publics.” With memories of the Second World War still so vivid this was understandable. Equally compelling as a driver of European integration was the external threat posed by the Soviet Union, but when that began to dissipate in the late 1980s, and then German reunification became a reality, Europe had to discover a new raison d’etre for itself, and also find a way of incorporating a country the size of Germany (“too big for Europe, too small for the world” in Kissinger’s words) into a re-energized European integration project.

Reports of Europe’s Demise are Premature

European integration has revolved around firstly building an institutional framework for Europe, and then hoping that a European identity would develop in time alongside national identities. As former Polish foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek observed, “Now that we have Europe, we need Europeans.” However, Rome wasn’t built in a day. As Walter Murphy observed, even 75 years after the establishment of the United States government, Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee still considered themselves citizens of their states first, of the South second, and of the “United States” last.

The European project, with all of its messy contradictions, is still better than any of the political alternatives. One need only look at some of the unappealing political figures (andPutin admirers) wanting the European Union to fail, such as Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders to recognize what a giant step back it would be economically and politically for Europe to return to a continent of feuding, self-interest, and parochial nationalism.

To find an antidote to these right-wing sirens of division and recrimination one need look no further than Eastern European countries such as Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania—states that lived under the shadow of the Soviet Union, and now, Putin’s Russia. As important as NATO membership is to these countries, the values of the European Union are about more than pure economics. For many of these countries, the values of the EU also symbolize their own journeys towards liberal democracy. As one Polish politician put it to Gideon Rachman shortly before his country joined the EU: “Imagine there is a big river running through Europe. On one side is Moscow. On the other side is Brussels. We know which side of the river we need to be on.”

Issues like migration, terrorism, climate change, and drug trafficking cannot be effectively tackled by nation-states acting alone. The logical and practical reasons why everyone (except perhaps terrorists, drug smugglers, and Farage et al) should want the European project to succeed are manifest. Young people from every member state of the EU have benefited from the opportunities to work, study, and travel throughout Europe, often with the support of immensely successful cultural exchange schemes like Erasmus.

A more heartfelt attachment to the idea of Europe may still be some way off; but, as Robert Schuman put it in 1950, “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

The crisis of confidence in the EU since the eurozone crisis is more than simply a question of democracy, legitimacy, and allowing people more opportunities to participate in political processes. It also reflects a much more fundamental question about the type of society that people wish to live in, which, as we have seen with the independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia, is as much a challenge within states as for supra-state bodies like the EU.

The challenge for the European Union and its member states, particularly Germany, is in balancing the often incongruous demands of co-operation and self-interest, and thus demonstrate to their own citizens that concrete achievements can still create a Europe of solidarity and prosperity as Schuman envisaged.

David Miles is a Carnegie Scholar at the University of St Andrews researching the relationship between judicial review and majoritarianism within Anglo-American and German constitutionalism. He is an associate fellow at The Centre for Global Constitutionalism, and is managing editor of Global Politics Magazine.

Image courtesy of Marcio Cabral de Moura

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