German foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years. More than a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the European Union is still stagnating politically. But the EU must be strengthened if the project of European integration is to succeed. Otherwise, the forces of the new nationalism will continue their assault on democracy, the rule of law, and the bloc’s other defining values.
The main reason that Europe remains at an impasse is Germany. For years after 2008, when the EU was confronting slow growth and mounting economic crises, Germany insisted that it could not move the European project forward alone, and that it would have to wait for France.
Then, in the spring of 2017, Emmanuel Macron was elected to the French presidency on the promise that he would push for EU-level reforms and modernize the French economy. But just when France was coming back on board, Germany was approaching its September 2017 general election, which resulted in significant losses for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and led to a months-long effort to form a new government.
In the same month that Germany voted, Macron delivered an impressive speech at the Sorbonne, in which he proposed specific reforms to stabilize the Eurozone, create a common border-protection system, and establish a joint European defense initiative. At the time, Macron’s proposals received an icy response in Germany; seven months later, Germany still hasn’t offered any of its own. Instead, Germany has remained silent on the question of Europe’s future, and has indicated that its primary concern is its own money. The bean counters in the Bundestag’s budget committee, it seems, have hijacked Germany’s European policy.
In the past, that policy was spearheaded by chancellors who understood the historic significance of European integration. Yet today, Merkel seems to have allowed the CDU’s backbenchers – and those of its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – to shackle her in the lead-up to any negotiations over EU-level reforms.
Squandering the opportunity offered by Macron – which will not come again – would be the height of political folly and historical blindness. The transatlantic system’s two founding powers are in the process of bidding that system goodbye. The United Kingdom has opted to leave the EU, effective next spring. And the United States under President Donald Trump has questioned its transatlantic security guarantee and now is undermining the global trade system upon which Europe – and particularly Germany – has relied since the 1950s.
The threat of a Western denouement is shaking the economic and security pillars of European stability. China has emerged as a global power capable of pulling the world economy’s center of gravity away from the Atlantic and toward the Asia-Pacific region. Europeans now face the prospect of being left behind by both the US and China, not only geopolitically, but also in the key economic sector of the twenty-first century: artificial intelligence.
Europe also faces more immediate threats closer to home. Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again testing Eastern Europe’s borders by military means. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is taking his country further away from NATO and the West, while abandoning democracy and the rule of law. And the entire Middle East could slide into a prolonged crisis, fueling more migration to Europe.
The war in Syria shows just how weak Europe has become. Other than serving as a destination for refugees, the EU has become irrelevant in Syria. Worse still, those formulating Germany’s foreign policy seem to believe that there is no military solution there, and that only Russia can bring an end to the war. This argument overlooks the fact that a military solution is now within Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grasp, thanks to the support he has received from Russia and Iran. It also overlooks the fact that Russia is in no position to stop the larger regional conflict, even if it wanted to. After all, Iran is not simply going to give up its land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea, and Israel is not going to accept the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and missiles in Syria. In fact, the risk of a conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria and Lebanon now looms large.
These developments pose new challenges for Europe. On one hand, the EU needs to forestall a nuclear arms race in the region, not least by protecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump is now threatening to kill. On the other hand, the EU has an association agreement with – and historical responsibilities toward – Israel, so it cannot remain neutral or turn a blind eye to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.
With the exception of France and the UK (for now), the EU and its member states are decidedly unprepared for these risks. And that applies particularly to Germany, where the military has languished under years of austerity. The post-war US security guarantee allowed Germany to take a long break from thinking about strategic threats. But now that Trump has called into question America’s commitments to its allies, Germany can no longer count on such a favorable division of labor.
In financial matters, Germany regularly accuses other Eurozone countries of not sticking to the rules and adhering to agreed austerity policies. In security matters, however, these accusations are coming back to haunt it. The era of free-riding is ending, and without the US, Germany’s only other source of defense is a stronger Europe, which certainly can’t be had for free.
Nobody expects Germany to adopt Macron’s proposals wholesale. But at a time when the foundations of the global order are shifting at Europe’s expense, marginal reforms will not suffice, and Germany has neither set out its own vision of a stronger Europe, nor shown a willingness to take action and make the necessary investments. Europe and the West need a Franco-German response equal to that once provided by François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, and by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer before them. And they need it now. History will not stand still.