Germany – a Model Experiment

Article published on Dec. 1, 2003
community published
Article published on Dec. 1, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Germany’s role in Europe is being decided within the country itself – since both Europe and Germany have far-reaching changes to deal with.

With the European Constitution, the shift away from being a community for the internal regulation and distribution of resources towards something qualitatively new will be made official: the EU shall become an outward-looking community for shared action and responsibility. Behind this is a struggle for democratic legitimacy and a European identity, preconditions to any real political freedom of action and problem-solving ability. But so far no community is making any constitutional act, and the discourse about Europe that this was intended to provoke is meeting with little response in Germany. Not that we must despair. We just need to examine the German mind to understand why this is.

Faustian dilemma

The explanation is, in short, the splitting of the German consciousness. On the one hand there is the German citizens’ short-sighted point of view, based on self-interest, which - as the Institute for Public Opinion Research in Allensbach concluded in 1994 - takes exception to the financial consequences of European unification: convergence criteria, financial aid for member states, contribution payments, agricultural subsidies, and economic transition periods being the buzzwords. But the long-term perspective, resting on faith in cultural diversity, tradition, and the coming together of former enemies, also remains intact. Reconciling the two principles of interest and ideal, both of which are endorsed by the population, would be a real feat of statesmanship. This could not be achieved either through Germany’s clear stance regarding the war on Iraq, nor through the subsequent campaign of the intellectual club assembled around the figure of Jürgen Habermas to fix a time of birth for the concept of a ‘European public’ within the population. Although these efforts were held aloft on the waves of the Zeitgeist, the diagnosis was solemnly revealed a few months later: debate in Germany as to the future of Europe died prematurely due to an overdose of idealism. Excessively persistent calls for a set identity, motives for which were diverse, were not accompanied by a stable consensus as to which interests a European Germany or a Europe defined with considerable German input might stand for. It is becoming clear, particularly because of the crisis in the (long considered exemplary) German welfare state that due reforms cannot permanently be swept under the carpet and displaced by proclamations of international unity. On the contrary, domestic and foreign policies are now more intimately related than ever before. Self-definition alongside commitment to international politics, national reforms together with the drafting of the European Constitution – these are different sides of an interdependent world. A world in which Germany is constantly being invited to reassess past achievements on the basis of whether they are still up to today’s challenges. Beyond the dramatic gestures, this is the only way the country can actively determine her place within European and transatlantic structures.

German problems – European problems

To overcome the gulf between national interest and the European political ideal it is necessary to remind ourselves of the numerous parallels between both levels. The sheer denseness of rules and regulations, the sluggishness and lack of transparency that characterise EU decision processes sadly find their German equal in the creeping bureaucracy of the tax system and in a policy on state subsidies dominated by lobby interests. On the flipside, by the end of 2004 the Federalism Commission set up by the Bundestag might have achieved something that proves revolutionary for Europe: the creation of a form of federalism with a clear distribution of competencies, a clear financial concept, and an ability to act. Moreover, the meaning of ‘social justice’ in today’s world will emerge as perennial lines of conflict between trade unions and employers – over salary levels, government regulations governing employers’ rights to dismiss staff, a more flexible interpretation of employers’ and employees’ freedom to negotiate pay rates without state interference in the light of the current economic situtation – continue to preoccupy the media.

But also beyond purely economic considerations, this repositioning of German values is of universal significance. In the light of demographic developments and medical technology, a new euthanasia debate has been sparked over whether decisions as to the duration of human life ought not to be returned to the individual’s power of disposal. Brigitte Zypries, Justice Minister, also fostered trends towards liberalisation and secularisation when she opened up for discussion the definition of the beginning of human life – that is, life demanding legal protection. A more disturbing affair is the scandal around Hohmann, CDU representative in the Bundestag, whose exclusion from the parliamentary party leaves worrying doubts as to how many others, either openly or behind closed doors, believe his anti-Semitic spin on history.

These phenomena are examples of a whole panoply of social arenas in which Germans are being called upon to examine their own, culturally-informed interpretation and categorisation of information into the domains of science, religion, morality, art and politics. The crucial question is whether Germany will embrace becoming an active instigator of change or whether she will see herself assailed by pressures that continually threaten to turn into reactionary reflexes: over-legislation, fundamentalism, conservatism. If German politics can guide a new movement, then the hope that the crisis-to-reform pattern might grow into a template for the European partners and ‘newcomers’ might be justified. Germany, and indeed Europe, shouldn’t necessarily be saying ‘WE’, with its bland, pseudo-heroic aftertaste. The EU cannot but learn and benefit from a successful Germany, for their political challenges – precisely because of the divergences – have long been the same.