Feb 21, 2023

In Europe’s Transatlantic Beauty Contest, Germany Wins Again

The political peacocking at the Munich Security Conference seemed supercharged this year. At stake: the prize for Best Atlanticist. In the end, much to the frustration of their fellow Europeans, Germany came out on top once again.  

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris attend the their bilateral meeting at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany February 17, 2023.
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The Munich Security Conference is always a diplomatic beauty contest, with national leaders trying to boost their standing. But at this year’s conference, which concluded on February 19, the political peacocking seemed supercharged. At stake: the prize for Best Atlanticist. Who would garner most praise from the United States—would it be Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who welcomed US President Joe Biden in Warsaw this week after his surprise visit to Kyiv; France’s President Emmanuel Macron as he rips up the Gaullist handbook and rethinks relations to Russia and the US; or the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with his bold calls for Europeans to supply arms to Ukraine?

The answer in the end was Germany, with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken lavishing praise on the government in Berlin for its leadership. The new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius duly reciprocated this praise by pledging his country’s support for a Ukrainian victory. But the US’ well-meaning, and sometimes flat-footed, engagement in European affairs gives a manic edge to the diplomatic tensions bubbling away beneath the rhetoric of European unity. That Germany is picking up the garlands yet again rankles with other capitals.

Speak with diplomats in Paris, Warsaw, London, or Rome and they openly complain that Germany always wins: The projects and institutions of Europe are sewn up around Germany, and Germany always comes out on top. Many of these diplomats had probably hoped that the harsh new geopolitical situation would finally reveal German inadequacy. Somehow it has not. So, this peacocking, this attempt to shine in the eyes of the Americans, is a last attempt to redress the situation and put the Germans in the shade.

Berlin not Brussels

Most European diplomats still demand and welcome German leadership. But press them, and it’s clear they have had as much German leadership as they can take. The initial years after 1989 and the end of the Cold War were all about binding a united Germany into common European institutions and projects. The years since 2005 have been about working out what to do with the Germans after those institutions and projects broke down—the eurozone crisis, the Schengen crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.

Back in 2005, the French voted “non” to the Constitutional Treaty in part because they feared that it would cement the Germanization of Europe. The unintentional effect was to achieve precisely this. The “non” damaged Europe’s shared institutions, and Berlin gradually replaced Brussels as Europe’s political capital. Since then, Germany has mooned about as the “reluctant hegemon,” obliging other Europeans to force it to act whilst it indulges in debates about its history, difficult domestic decision-making, and political dogmas.

After 20 years of these theatrics—of Germany reluctantly making itself the center of European affairs—European powers are flummoxed and infuriated. Turkish and British politicians trekked to Berlin to ask a favor when it came to their entry or exit from the European Union and were told it was not in Germany’s gift, only for very German EU decisions to subsequently emerge. They simply could not work out how the French got the Germans to budge. But, if appearances are anything to go by, Paris now regrets ever having tried.

Germany’s Centrality

With each crisis, French diplomats predicted that German authority would be damaged and that they would have to step in and help. But, with each crisis, it was Europe’s authority that was damaged whilst German centrality grew. So, Paris started framing matters to help Germany move without confecting a crisis—“protect the rules-based order,” the French cried. But in so doing—in providing the moral authority for Germany to assert its interests—they only protected Germany from the duty of reflecting on its power and responsibility in Europe.

New Atlanticists like France’s Macron and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni today feel that they deserve just as much a reward from Biden as Berlin for trying to rethink domestic foreign policy. Old Atlanticists like the UK and Poland feel unfairly passed over. Back when Biden came to power, they understood that their domestic politics put them beyond the pale and why he felt the need to place all his chips on Germany. But they believe the international situation ought to have put their domestic misdemeanors into perspective.

The resulting peacocking—trying to outdo one another in their rhetoric on Ukraine—is aimed at Republicans as much as Democrats. Warsaw and London are worried. They are worried that Biden has put all his chips on a country which, they believe, takes more from relationships than it gives. They fear that Germany could swallow up what remaining political capital US Atlanticists have. Sadly, the tone in London and Warsaw is shrill, politicians there tend to overreach, and they make Germany shine in comparison.

A Worrying Dynamic

The German chancellery, as ever, seems blithely unaware of all this. Berlin has come to pride itself on being the grown-up in the room, the one European capital with a mature relationship with the US. And this is the really worrying dynamic. Speaking after a conference that brought together US, German, and Western Balkan officials, one German explained his reticence with the words: “There are certain things that Daddy and Mummy [the US and Germany] cannot discuss when the kids are in the room.” This said an awful lot.

The Western Balkan governments have responded in kind. They have been shrill in their complaints about one another. They have called in “Mummy and Daddy” to solve even minor bilateral issues. They have demanded transactional rewards from Berlin and Washington for doing things that were in their interest anyway. Above all, they have realized how acutely Germany and the US relied on them to behave well if the duo are to maintain their authority, and they have exploited this political dependence to the full.

There is a danger that Europe as a whole will now become infantilized in this way, if Daddy and Mummy really are getting married.

Roderick Parkes is Deputy Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) research institute and heads the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe.

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