As the largest EU member state, Germany enjoys unmatched influence in the bloc. But Europe isn’t a topic in the country’s parliamentary election campaign, something which German political thinker Ulrike Guerot lamented in a recent interview with EUobserver.
“There isn’t much debate about anything, actually. [Incumbent chancellor] Angela Merkel seemed to have won before she even began campaigning. It could be a generational factor: for the first time in German history, more than half of the electorate is over 50. These people like stability,” said Guerot, a professor of European affairs and a writer, whose provocative books about Europe and democracy have won her a growing following.
“But stability could in a way be the worst for Europe. Everything needs to change in Europe, and especially the Germans,” she added.
Voters in the federal republic will head to the polls on 24 September, in a year rich with elections in the EU – often taking Europe as a key theme
Most recently, Emmanuel Macron won the presidential race in France on a pro-EU ticket, promising eurozone reform and a more social Europe, while the runner-up, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, campaigned on anti-EU messages.
Macron’s triumph has helped dissipate much of the fears surrounding far-right populism, but Guerot said it was too early to celebrate.
“He wasn’t elected because of his programme, but because people didn’t want Le Pen’s dark visions,” she said. “Despite a good start, his support remains fragile.”
The EU still needed an overhaul, she insisted, to become more social and democratic – reforms that would require Berlin’s backing.
“Unfortunately, we see close to no will to change, at least not substantially.”
She said some of it may be linked to the fact that the German economy is doing well. In this situation, “it is easier for German elites to pressure politicians into the discourse that it’s enough for others should just do whatever Germany does to be successful.”
A European republic
“It’s just that what works for us doesn’t work for others and it cannot work for others because the euro zone is flawed in its set-up. There is no model to copy,” she added.
In her first book, Why Europe Should Become a European Republic, written in the wake of the Greek debt crisis, Guerot argued that Europe is almost completely integrated in terms of economic and monetary policy, but lags behind in democracy.
She called it “a single market and a currency without a democracy behind it”, unable to care for people.
“Merkel has famously said that if the euro fails, Europe fails,” Guerot told EUobserver.
“But I believe this sentence should be: keep the euro as it is and democracy fails in Europe. And this is what is happening.”
The bloc’s inability to go forward had led to resistance from within, in the form of right-wing populism directed at the EU and the common currency.
It did not matter if populists win elections or finish second, she said.
“When they reach critical mass, say 30 percent, it starts to get systemic. Their arguments win even if they don’t win elections. The whole system shifts to the right and that is what we experience all over Europe,” Guerot said.
She stressed that anti-EU feelings initially didn’t come from the people – “what people want has never mattered that much” – but from business and political elites, who instrumentalised frustrations over material inequalities. She traced the emergence of Germany’s populist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), to the German liberals (FDP).
“AfD wasn’t formed by globalisation losers in east Germany or the Nazi party and their sympathisers. It arose when half of the Liberals in 2012 decided to go against their own government and oppose a bailout of Greece and parts of Europe’s bourgeois establishment u-turned on Europe,” she said.
They had managed to convince voters that Germany was already shouldering its responsibility for Europe.
“I think many realise that, without restructuring, the eurozone is a looming disaster and that Germany won’t survive as a happy island if there is an economic downturn,” she said.
“However, many Germans think they are already doing enough, because we took in a million refugees in 2015, German tax payers are footing the bill for the Greek bailout, or that we started playing a more active role in European foreign policy, especially in the relations with Russia where Germany was previously accused of being too close to president Vladimir Putin.”
“All this is true. But it hides other aspects, especially that the eurozone was skewed to their country’s benefit to start with.”
‘Europe is made by the right’
The German intellectual said the case for a social Europe must come from Germany’s centre-right.
“The German social-democrats (SPD) have a very interesting campaign on everything social: the growing income gap and increasing rents. But it seems as this isn’t credible to voters, out of which some 85 percent are happy with their social situation, according to recent polls,” she argued.
“The nurse earning €50,000 a year would rather distance herself from the poor. She doesn’t think she would benefit from a tax raise; she sees herself as part of the up-and-coming, even if we know that this doesn’t happen … wealth today comes from capital and not work.”
“This is why social Europe must come from the centre-right, from Macron who is neither right or left, but social-liberal, or from the conservatives. When they propose social programmes it is seen as the general interest, rather than stealing people’s taxes.”
The question was what Angela Merkel would do if she wins another term as chancellor.
“She has been pretty quiet on this. Maybe she’s smarter than we think and will use her four years to u-turn the whole thing: set up a parliament for the euro-zone, build up its fiscal capacity, introduce Franco-German bonds for a start, strengthen European democracy and build a European security union with Macron,” Guerot speculated, adding: “But I am not sure she will do it, and part of it will be very difficult if she enters a [coalition] government with the FDP.”
Guerot said, however, that things could change more quickly than one may think.
“The Volkswagen scandal, the unravelling of Germany’s automobile industry and all the sectors that depend on it, could kick Germany out of complacency,” she said.
“And if not that, something else could suddenly come up. Europe is fragile. Germany could lose its leading role very quickly – for the better or for the worse.”
Ulrike Guerot is a Berlin-based German political thinker