The New German Question

Benjamin Preisler, 25.02.2013
Military interventions are unpopular with the German electorate, only 33% according to a recent poll support military participation in Mali

The German Question used to refer to the territorial aggressiveness displayed by a country too big and powerful for its neighbours. The problem today seems to be the complete reverse. As Radosław Sikorski put it in a widely-acclaimed speech in Berlin: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

Contrary to the fears of François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher,the reunified Berlin Republic has not relied on its increased weight to once again try and subdue its neighbours. It has instead turned to domestic navel-gazing. The best gauges for the resulting non-policy are Germany’s foreign policy in the realm of security and even more so its role during the eurozone crisis.

France is of course leading its second war in as many years in Europe’s neighborhood. Germany played an obstructive role in the run-up to the intervention in Libya abstaining alongside China and Russiain the decisive UN Security Council vote. In Mali the continent’s most important economic power initially contributed two transport planes. A German contribution to the EU’s training mission and a refueling plane only became politically feasible after the – relative – pacification of the North had been achieved. The almost caricatural risk-aversion of German decision-makers presented a problem in Afghanistan already. Engagement rules for the Bundeswehr there prevented it from playing a pertinent fighting role. It is also a stark contrast with Angela Merkel’s rhetoric of Germany’s security being directly affected by the situation in Mali not to mention the supposed depth of the Franco-German friendship, recently celebrated at multiple venues for the 50th anniversary of the Traité d’Elysée.

It is essentially the absolute predominance of domestic prerogatives that shapes German foreign policy. Military interventions are unpopular with the German electorate, only 33% according to a recent poll support military participation in Mali. In the lead-up to national elections in September 2013, a significant German contribution – and especially German causalities – could impose a heavy political cost for Merkel.

Arguably, due to the army’s limited capability capacities, the country could contribute little more in neither Afghanistan nor Mali even if it wanted to. Yet, the same domestic prerogatives dominate the European economic realm where Germany is the sole actor capable of ending the euro crisis and preventing the continent from experiencing a Japanese-esque  lost decade of low growth.

Germany’s policy of devaluation within the eurozone via wage restraint throughout the early 2000s of course was a beggar-thy-neighbor policy that directly contributed to the country’s consistently high current account surplus. A six per cent surplus over a three year average will result in the European Commission initiating a Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure. Germany was at 5.9% in 2012 and had run even higher surpluses from 2007 to 2011.

Yet, this surplus is a point of pride for the German public and its government, whose absolute concentration on the domestic side of the equation leaves them oblivious to the cost this policy imposes upon others. Not to mention the mutually exclusive policy goals of ending the euro crisis while sustaining existing trade balances and their underlying consumption patterns.

The biggest German initiative in the crisis so far, and arguably the only one where the government has shown itself to be proactive not just reactive, has been the Fiscal Pact. This pact is nothing but a reaffirmation – a tepid reinforcement if you will – of pre-existing fiscal rules that caters exclusively to a German electorate afraid of having to pay for Southern Europe’s supposed dainty life style.

Worse still, early on in the European debt crisis, Merkel’s government was said to want to delay financial aid for Greece in order to assure its party’s victory in regional elections in Nordrhein-Westfalen. François Hollande has publicly suspected the German chancellor of putting off decisions until the elections in September 2013 have played out.

Far from seizing a leadership role in Europe and beyond, Germany’s foreign policy has essentially been commandeered by a line of isolationist thought that aspires to nothing but an economically sound “Swiss” existence for Germany. The biggest and – economically – most powerful country in Europe is essentially free-riding in Europe’s quest to assure internal and regional stability.

*Benjamin Preisler has a MA in political science & economics and most recently worked in the risk analysis industry