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The German election: what Europe expects - and what Germany will not do


Europeans expect a lot from Germany. They want it to accept transfers of resources – and, if necessary, of power – required to sustain the long-term viability of the European integration project. Pro- and anti-integrationists alike fear Germany’s growing power. Germany’s election is no longer primarily a national affair: depending on the outcome, residents in other member states of the European Union and especially in the eurozone might feel the economic, social, and political impact of the result even more keenly than German voters themselves.

It appears that many leading politicians in other EU member states share one overriding expectation. They want Germany, the largest and most powerful economy in the EU, to accept responsibilities of political leadership commensurate with its economic heft. They want Berlin to put its money where its mouth is and accept in deed as well as in word the necessity for deeper European integration. They want whatever German government emerges from the election to propose some long-term perspective for Europe’s future.

It is in many ways a surprising catalogue of demands. Fulfilling it could easily put much of the design of the new Europe largely into German hands. Yet European politicians seem fed up with Germany’s reluctance to assume an adequate leadership role and with a German approach to European crisis management that seems capable only of tackling the most immediate emergencies. They want a vision for Europe that goes beyond Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “step-by- step” approach and a single-minded insistence on austerity policy. As Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said in Berlin in November 2011: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” (Many in Germany, on the other hand, think France holds the key. They see French weakness as an obstacle to effective Franco-German co-operation and as the trigger for exaggerated demands on German leadership and German resources.)


However, the Germany that many in Europe hope for is not on offer. It is hard to imagine any new government coalition – or the old one, if it is returned to power – providing enlightened leadership of a kind that accepts significant short-term sacrifice to buy into a far more uncertain vision of long-term political stability. Germany lives in a different world, with its own constraints and worries, many of which are largely overlooked by the outside world. Fears of impoverishment fuelled by a faltering demography co-exist with a new national momentum that has emerged since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There is a gap between European expectations of a more forceful and constructive German role and the German capacity to meet these expectations.


The biggest risk, therefore, is of European post-election disillusion because Germany’s approach to Europe is unlikely to change. Berlin quite simply lacks the political ambition to provide clear leadership in turbulent times. Rather, it hopes to influence events by force of example, getting others to transpose the German model of thriftiness at home and competitiveness abroad into their own financial, economic, and political cultures. This, most Germans believe, is the only way for Europe to succeed in an increasingly competitive and globalised world.

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