Politics Member States

German elections 2013: Germany’s European awakening

22 September 2013
La Repubblica Rome

Whatever the outcome of the September 22 elections, the winner will give a new impetus to the development of European politics and correct the mistakes made by the bloc’s 28 members, writes sociologist Ulrich Beck.

In the eve of Germany's federal elections, a visitor to Berlin these days might expect the city to be raging with debate on Europe. Surely the streets are alive with Eurosceptics wailing for the return of the mark and impassioned Europeans demanding "ever closer union". In fact, Germany is oddly detached. So far the campaign has focused on US intelligence surveillance, the rising cost of energy and childcare facilities. Germany, the key to solving the euro crisis, seems immune to a truly polarising dispute over alternatives, especially since none are available for free.

Since the start of the crisis, many governments across Europe have been swept from power. Germany's, on the other hand, has never looked more secure. Germans love Merkel. Why? Because she asks little of them. And because Merkel is practising a new style of power politics in Europe, which I have called Merkiavellism: a combination of Machiavelli and Merkel. "Is it better to be loved or feared?" Machiavelli inquired in The Prince. His answer was that "one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting".

Merkiavelli is applying this principle in a new way. She is to be feared abroad, and loved at home – perhaps because she has taught other countries to fear. Brutal neoliberalism to the outside world, consensus with a social democratic tinge at home – that's the successful formula that has enabled Merkiavelli constantly to expand her own position of power and that of Germany as well.

‘Striking discrepancy’

They are losing their last spark of hope and trust in in the national and European system of politics

There's a striking discrepancy concerning the positions of executive elites and political parties too. In most European countries there are strong Eurosceptic movements and parties giving the increasingly restless citizenry a voice. To them the austerity politics imposed by their governments are monstrous acts of injustice. They are losing their last spark of hope and trust in in the national and European system of politics.

This, again, is not the case in Germany. Here we find a rare state of consensus. The two opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens, may be challenging the detail of Merkel's austerity programmes, but have so far always voted with her in parliament. Meanwhile, two of the parties that form Merkel's government – the Bavarian CSU and the liberal FDP – are remarkably distant from their own government’s position et much less enthusiastic on the European committment to saving Greece. As a result the German debate on the eurozone crisis takes place without an opposition in parliament.

In the real world, meanwhile, the European crisis is coming to a head, and Germany finds itself faced with a historic decision. It must attempt either to revive the dream and poetry of a political Europe in the imagination of the people, or to stick with a policy of muddling through and of using hesitation as a means of coercion – until the euro do us part. Germany has become too powerful to be able to afford the luxury of indecision and inactivity. But Germany is sleep-walking down its own special path. As Jürgen Habermas puts it: "Germany isn't dancing. It's dozing on a volcano".

‘Dozing on a volcano’

And there is a final paradox: even if Germany is dozing on a volcano, even if there is no discussion on the moment of decision, the most likely outcome of the elections is going to be in favour of the next step towards a political EU. This is because most likely Merkel will return to the chancellery for a third term. Under her, I expect that there will be a silent turn to a politics of more Europe: switching positions is the key element of Merkiavelli's power politics. And saving the Euro and the EU is good for the book of history.

In the unlikely event that Merkel won't be re-elected, a red-green government would take the initiative, together with France, Italy, Spain, Poland etc, to correct the design flaw of European monetary union and take the next step in completing the political union: producing a situation in which Merkel, in opposition, constitutes the informal part of a "grand coalition".

Let’s look at the German elections through the eyes of the others. In the governments, on the streets of Europe and in the corridors of Brussels everyone waits to see which way Berlin will go. ‘I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so’, Radek Sikorski declared in 2011, ‘but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.’ Starting on September 23rd, the day after the elections, in one constellation or the other, the question: what Europe do we want and how do we get there? will be at the centre of German and European politics. Let’s hope it is going to be ein anderes Europa, another (cosmopolitan) Europe, able to stand up for itself in a world at risk, and not eine Deutsche Bundesrepublik Europa – a German Federal Republic of Europe.