“German Virtues” vs “German Diktat”

15. 3. 2017

If the current European Union is really close to a “German Europe”, what say the Czechs?

Over the past twenty years few Europeans have been as preoccupied with Germany as the Czechs. Polish readers will, of course, immediately object that real and imaginary grievances in Polish–German relations have been high on the agenda in their country for the past few decades, even though they may not always have been dealt with in the most rational manner. Nevertheless, relations between Warsaw and Bonn (and later Berlin) did not have to start from scratch to the same extent as the relations between the Czechs and the Germans, which, by contrast, had almost no pre-1989 basis to build on. In addition, Poland has been right after Israel in always playing a central role in Germany’s discourse about who was to blame for starting World War II.

Some time ago, shortly after the reuniting of Germany, many Czech intellectuals asked the rhetorical question as to whether a new and, most importantly, enlarged Germany would be as European as the old Federal Republic used to be, or whether Europe would become more German, its rules dictated by the colossus of 80 million souls. The way in which this question was posed implied which answer was to be regarded as desirable, and the only correct one—the collocation “European Germany”—invariably featured a plus sign, while “German Europe” was regarded as something negative. This approach envisaged a European Germany as a country that maintained friendly relations with France, voluntarily kept its distance from major international political affairs, and was ultimately prepared to give up its time-tested currency and sacrifice it on the altar of European unification. Germany was also regarded primarily as a country that acknowledged its historic responsibility for the horrors of World War II.

The idea of a potential “German Europe”, on the other hand, was supposed to be synonymous with German expansionism—starting with economic expansionism, deriving from the strength of the German export industry, and ending with political domination. After 1989, the notion that this was how Germany might, in fact, achieve what it had been unable to achieve by military means during the world war was advanced not only by political extremists in the Czech Republic but also resonated strongly with the majority population as well.

Given the above a present-day Czech view of Germany is bound to arouse mixed feelings: on the one hand, there is no doubt that even after its uniting, Germany has not lost its pro- -European orientation over the past twenty years. Quite a few people may still recall the level of support the last wave of accession to the European Union by countries of Central and Eastern Europe received from official Berlin. They may also remember that it was the newly elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel who pushed through increased funding for the new member states in the course of renegotiating a European financial framework that was about to expire. And even in the past few years marked by economic crisis, we have had several opportunities to note that of all the big players among the current 27 member states it has always been Germany, and not France or Great Britain, let alone Spain, that we could rely on to show consideration for the needs of the smaller European states.

On the other hand, there is the pressure the current Berlin government has exerted on the other EU member states—whether they belong to the Euro zone or not—to adhere to strict budgetary rules, and to practise frugality and austerity, a pressure that is reflected in the most recent major European treaty project, the Fiscal Compact. Many international commentators have called this treaty a triumph of the proverbial German virtues, which is a nice way of putting it. Others, however, have taken a more negative view, explicitly speaking and writing of a German Diktat and warning that a more unified Europe would become “more German”. It has to be said that in some cases it was the Germans who have contributed to this, for example, when Volker Kauder, leader of the ruling Christian Democratic faction in the Bundestag, declared with considerable glee, “Europe speaks German now”.

If the European Union is now really beginning to resemble the “German Europe” model, how do the Czechs feel about it?

At first sight, nothing would seem to better illustrate the Czech attitude to the most recent EU developments, and therefore also to the current German government’s demands for adherence to strict fiscal rules and various credit restraints, than the fact that apart from the British, the Czech government was the only one to reject the fiscal compact right from the start and eventually refused to sign it. Surely it is fully legitimate for a country to insist on its sovereignty in matters of fiscal policy, even at the cost of resisting further European unification, this time under German direction.

However, if we take a closer look, the Czech position appears to be far less clear-cut. Particularly since in the domestic context the current right-of-centre government has itself been implementing a strict austerity policy, from time to time even considering the introduction of constitutional mechanisms to guarantee permanently balanced budgets, roughly corresponding to “credit restraints” (Germany) and “golden rules” (France). In other words, this might ultimately suggest that the so-called “German virtues” are not entirely alien to the current Czech government either, and that—at least as far as the ruling faction is concerned—the Czech Republic is capable of supporting them. Similarly, the Czech Republic—just like Germany—is reluctant to pump any more money into restarting economic growth if it means further increasing the level of debt. Interestingly enough, the number of states sharing this attitude is constantly shrinking. What if eventually the Germans end up in isolation, with only the Czechs on their side? That would certainly be an interesting paradox, given how much has been written about the inevitable enmity and antagonism between the two nations, as well as about the incompatibility of their interests.

The experience of recent years has, in fact, demonstrated that Germany remains a key country of reference for the Czech Republic and that there is hardly an area where the situation of the two countries is not being compared— from the level of political culture, through the amount of knowledge acquired by school children, right up to trying to understand the widely differing per-kilometre cost of building motorways or—most recently—the cost of entry tickets to zoological gardens.

An active Poland, a manoeuvring Czech Republic

In short, although the Czechs are good at calculating what is profitable for them and what is not, apart from this basic tradesmen calculation they lack a coherent idea of how the European Union should be organised in the future and how much effort they may need to invest in it.

Our Polish neighbours, on the other hand, are cut from quite a different cloth. Their Foreign Secretary Radoslaw Sikorski caused quite a furore when he declared last November that Germany ought to take on a leadership role in Europe vis à vis the current European crisis and that is should strive much more aggressively for further integration. The Germans were ecstatic, as they had never expected to hear anything like that, let alone from a Polish politician. And while some Poles wondered whether Sikorski should not be tried on charges of high treason, once emotions had calmed down somewhat, many were forced to admit that the scenario outlined by the Minister represented a possible option for the EU’s further development. Certainly not the only one, but that’s a matter for discussion.

Only in the Czech Republic has there been no official response to Sikorski’s statement. The more positive response came from various pundits and many commentators.

Actually, strictly speaking, there has been a response, although it came some weeks later. Visiting Germany earlier this year, the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg gave an interview to the weekly Der Spiegel. In it, he indirectly criticized Germany for sometimes being too hectoring or patronising to other EU nations, something that might not always go down too well. It is remarkable that these are the words of the same minister of foreign affairs who as recently as last autumn—in an interview with the Czech magazine Týden, in which he announced he was considering running for presidency— declared it was in the Czechs’ national interest to cleave to Germany.

Unfortunately, in Czech foreign policy this kind of manoeuvring is not unique and does not depend solely on the political hue of the party that happens to be in power. It is usually justified with reference to the euro-sceptic President or the allegedly dwindling support for the idea of European integration among the wider public. However, these are but excuses. The absence of the courage to come off the fence and to bear the consequences has been typical of Czech foreign policy for a long time. That is why it is unlikely that we will live to hear a speech of a tenor comparable to Sikorski’s, particularly since no one likely to deliver it is on the horizon.

The weaknesses of Europe’s giant

To return to Germany itself and its role in the European Union today, the country is undoubtedly stronger than ever before. It is the greatest economic power on the old continent, one of the few nations whose economy is still growing. It is also worth noting that this is not some kind of natural phenomenon but rather a consequence of painful welfare state reforms, which Germany took a long time to pluck up courage to carry out but which the country eventually—unlike some other countries on the old continent—did implement.

However, the question is whether positive export figures can be regarded as the only criterion for judging the internal strength of a country. By internal strength I mean not just the degree of its political stability, or how many people regularly participate in elections or how much support there is for extremist forces. For in this respect, compared with many other EU countries, Germany is still very predictable and its political system and social order still enjoys a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens.

Nevertheless, recent years have also revealed some weaknesses in present-day Germany. First and foremost is the issue of migration or rather, the failure to deal with its impact. Over the past decades, in some large urban centres in the western parts of the old Federal Republic such as Hamburg or Cologne, immigrants from Muslim countries have created closed parallel universes. Not only do these communities not recognize German law, and therefore the values of Western civilization, but its young and often unemployed members display an open hatred towards their host country and the Western system of values.

Another issue that makes Germany vulnerable is its negative demographic trend. According to some estimates, if the current birth rate of 1.4 children per mother remains steady, Germany’s population will shrink from the current 82 to 65 million by 2060. It was Berlin’s former social democratic finance minister and later Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin who highlighted both these problems in his book “Germany Commits Suicide”. His book caused a major stir and became a bestseller.

However questionable some of Sarrazin’s arguments may be, and even if the figures on which his claims are based may have been taken out of context, nobody can deny that he drew attention to problems that the current administration does not dare to raise, partly for reasons of political correctness. Therefore it came as no surprise that Sarrazin was almost universally condemned and accused of tarnishing Germany’s reputation abroad.

Yet Germany has seen many similar debates in its history. The most notorious was probably the so-called historians’ controversy in the mid- 1980s, which basically focused on how 8 May 1945 should be regarded—as the moment of the country’s liberation from a Nazi government, or primarily as a day of defeat that, additionally, had brought further suffering to Germans living in Central and Eastern Europe in the form of expulsions. It is also useful to recall the discussion around Daniel Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” that raged in the mid-1990s.

Germany is not the only country suffering from problems highlighted by Sarrazin, such as the integration of immigrants from other cultures, or an unfavourable demographic situation.

However, these problems and the issues underlying them have been a matter of public debate in the past, a debate that was often painful but ultimately pushed German society forward.

Yet this has not happened in Sarrazin’s case and while the form in which he raised the problem has been condemned, when it comes to the crux of the matter there has been just beating about the bush.

By the way, Germany has also failed to hold a similar debate on the further development of the European Union. Here, too, the question is to what extent the current government’s policy and the general pro-European consensus across the whole political spectrum genuinely reflect public opinion.

In short, it is one of the many issues, including questioning established patterns and procedures, that is regarded as bad form to discuss in public. The question is whether showing more courage in this respect will not in the end be more crucial for the future of Europe—regardless of whether it is German or a non-German—than any amount of fiscal discipline imposed from above, or any size of bailout aimed at supporting growth on the old continent.

Robert Schuster

is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard in the Czech Republic from 2000 to 2012. He has been a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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