Germany’s Role in European Integration: More Than an Embedded Power – Less Than a Lead Nation

Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Franco Algieri

in: European Policy Center (ed.), Challenge Europe

Brussels 09/2003


While Germany has been an active player in the Convention on the future of Europe, it has not held a clear leadership role in promoting European integration. Franco Algieri and Janis Emanouilidis argue that Germany is in an ongoing process of readjustment from a traditionally self-restrained to a more self-confident player and is redefining its role on the European stage between a British oriented Atlanticism and the French Gaullist tradition.

For almost half a century Germany was as an embedded power in a double sense. On the one hand, in the framework of the (West-)European integration process. On the other, in the context of the transatlantic alliance. Third actors never had any reason to doubt that Germany, embedded in this constellation would choose to go its own way (Sonderweg).

Today, at a time when the EU is not only facing its most challenging enlargement, but finds itself in the midst of unprecedented institutional reform, three decisive questions come to mind. Will Germany remain committed to the European integration process? Is the Social Democratic/Green government follow a coherent strategy? What are the specific features of Germany’s policy approach and what is its strategic goal?

Reliability and predictability

To understand German politics today one needs to understand the past. The so called Bonner Republik was a predictable actor with clearly distinguishable interests.

First, it had a strong desire to deepen the EC/EU. The transfer of sovereignty to the supranational level was supported – albeit not in an uncritical and unconditional fashion, i.e. European and national competencies had to be kept in a mutually reinforcing relationship. The EC/EU was to be neither too fragmented nor too centralized. Much of Germany’s political will to shape the European project was strengthened by its financial commitment to making it a reality. Over time, though, Germany became less willing to be perceived as little more than the European paymaster (Zahlmeister).

Secondly, since the time of Chancellor Willy Brandt, Germany has been deeply committed to the so called Ostpolitik. The affiliation to Central and East European countries again became an important driving force underlying the strong German support for EU enlargement. Yet, this support was always understood in the sense of deepening and widening not widening at the expense of deepening. Chancellor Helmut Kohl argued in the 1990s that the integration process could not follow the slowest ship in the convoy. Already at this stage, the idea of differentiation in the integration process was manifesting itself in Germany’s EU politics – which was actually not a novelty, if one considers that Chancellor Helmut Schmidt saw the necessity of a ‘different pace’ in the economic dimension as early as the late 1970s.

Finally, a special relationship with the United States, built on mutual trust, influenced Germany’s self-perception as well as its international role. For a long period of time, German foreign policy followed a self-confident, but self-controlled line, closely bound to its history. This form of self-restraint became the hallmark of the German foreign policy style, embodied by former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, German unification, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Germany – together with other European states – had to face new challenges. Germany’s challenge was two-fold: it had to address the internal changes brought on by unification and reshape its role and position in international relations. When the parliamentary elections in 1998 ended the 16-year Kohl era, there was an initial uncertainty in Germany and abroad, on the foreign policy line the new Schröder/Fischer government would pursue.

Before coming into office, Gerhard Schröder, had advocated a rather EU-critical line, while his foreign minister and vice-Chancellor, Joschka Fischer, had the indubitable image of a convinced and committed European. Even though the newly elected government strongly emphasised domestic policies – including the fight against unemployment, social affairs or environmental questions – international developments in conjunction with growing external expectations quickly became a focal point. The biggest challenges were the EU Presidency in the first half of 1999 and having to simultaneously confront war in the Balkans.

With respect to the Council Presidency, the German government followed its European course not merely in words, but also in its actions, pursuing a seamless continuity from the old government to the new in terms of the country’s pro-integrationist stance. In this context it was not surprising that there was no major reshuffling in the diplomatic staff before and during the EU Council Presidency in 1999. Germany’s support for the involvement in the Balkans, however, was a major breakthrough. In the decade following unification, German foreign policy has taken a case-by-case approach with respect to military involvement and the constraints placed upon its foreign and security policy by the German constitution.

This gradual approach raised public acceptance for increased military deployment worldwide. Germany now has more than 8000 troops on duty ‘out of area’, in the Balkans, Africa and Central Asia. The German government with its Social Democratic/Green coalition is guided by a pragmatic, power-oriented approach, cognizant of the demands and pressures it faces from its partners. Had the 1998 election taken a different turn, i.e. would we have seen another Conservative government in office with a Social Democratic Green opposition, such a fundamental change towards a new – or at least a self-assured Germany would have been far more difficult.

The internal dimension of European integration

In the continuation of the Kohl-government’s basic political line, the current coalition government strongly advocated both the parallel enlargement and institutional deepening of the European Union. Enlargement of the EU to include Central and Eastern Europe was embraced as a historic opportunity and has become the main strategic aim for Germany in recent years. A common European vision of a Federation of Nation-States, as was first explicitly outlined in Joschka Fischer’s Humboldt-speech, is widely supported in Germany’s political establishment. At the same time, the willingness of German elites and the population to bear the heavy financial burden of further EU integration is dwindling. European projects are consistently evaluated against the backdrop of a seriously constrained national budget. The country’s unresolved economic problems have deflated its status as European economic Wunderkind.

As a result, the Schröder/Fischer government – in line with its precedent government – is strongly in favour of reforming those policy areas, such as the common agricultural policy, which draw highly the EU budget and thus on German financial commitments. In contrast to the past, German EU policy has developed certain ‘safety zones’ in which further deepening is perceived not to be in the German interest. This has become most obvious in the area of Justice and Home Affairs, in which the German coalition government is not willing to completely surrender its veto rights with respect to asylum or immigration. This position became obvious during the final work of the European reform Convention, when the Federal government together with the German Länder strongly opposed majority decision-making in those fields. Yet, on general lines the results of the work of the Convention do include a number of positive features from a German perspective.

The integration of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a clearer division of competences between the EU and its Member States, the introduction of a European Foreign Minister, the application of qualified-majority voting as the standard decision-taking procedure and its simplification from 2009 onwards (double majority) or the adoption of the co-decision procedure as the standard legislative procedure are only some positive examples. Albeit critical, particularly about the results in the area of foreign, security and defence policy, the federal government and the main opposition parties (except some critical tones from Bavaria) support the outcome of the Convention as the best compromise possible.

As a consequence, the government is strongly in favour of maintaining the current draft Treaty proposals and not to fundamentally re-opening the negotiations in the framework of the upcoming Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). There is a staunch belief that the positive achievements of the Convention should not be put at risk. The Member State governments should thus, from a German perspective, base their deliberations on the results of the Convention and aim to conclude the IGC as quickly as possible. The latter becomes even more important in light of the fact that the enlarged EU will in the next years face a number of major challenges, most significantly the adoption of the next financial framework 2007-2013 and a reform of cost-intensive policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy.

The external dimension of European integration

Germany is a major advocate of a more flexible European foreign policy. In the aftermath of the highly controversial discussion over Wolfgang Schäuble’s and Karl Lamers’ concept of a “core Europe” in 1994, differentiated integration has become a clear strategic focus of German EU politics. It was Joschka Fischer, who in his Humboldt speech (May 2001) further deepened this approach and underlined the importance of flexibility in the framework of a ‘centre of gravity’ inside the Union.

Already during the Nice Intergovernmental Conference a substantial reform of the instrument of “enhanced cooperation” was demanded and in the course of the Convention, the German government strongly supported its further reform. Together with France, it argued in favour of extending enhanced cooperation to include issues related to security and defence. The new instruments of “structured cooperation” and “closer cooperation”, as proposed by the draft Constitution, could become the decisive vehicle toward achieving what the French and German government call a European Security and Defence Union. With respect to the most controversial mini-defence summit in Brussels in April 2003, between Belgium, Germany, France and Luxemburg, German government representatives publicly declared that cooperation outside the treaty framework was a viable alternative, in situations in which consensus among all EU Member States cannot be achieved. These remarks certainly had the purpose of putting of pressure on the work inside the Convention.

However, they were also more than indicative of the fact that Germany is serious about applying the concept of differentiated integration in practice. At the same time however Berlin is facing severe restraints with regard to its national defence budget and the dragging reform of the Bundeswehr. The only way out of this dilemma is to further intensify the cooperation with its European partners.

Broker between British transatlanticism and French Gaullism

Germany is in an ongoing process of readjustment. Neither in domestic politics nor in foreign policy is the outcome clearly determined. Nevertheless, the political, intellectual and public debate underline Germany’s changing image from a self-restrained to a self-assured actor: an actor which is no longer merely a reactive consumer, but an active provider of security. Yet, all of these changes are occurring within the context of an unyielding sense of European commitment.

As in the past, special relationships remain relevant, though they are in the midst of a qualitative reappraisal. Germany could serve as a crucial linkage in five ways, i.e. between big and small Member States, between the UK and France, between France and the US, between old and new EU members, as well as between the EU and Russia. Consequentially, Germany could, to a certain extent, co-determine the swing of the European pendulum: between a British oriented transatlanticism and a French Gaullist tradition.


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