Pariah, Model, Leader? Germany in Europe
Interview with Prof. Charlie Jeffery by Philipp Requat (European Ideas, 22.03.2012)
Professor Charlie Jeffery is currently Senior Vice-Principal and Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh. At the time of the interview, he was the Head of the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Economic and Social Research Council, chairing its Research Committee. His areas of research and teaching focus on German politics, European Integration and comparative territorial politics.
European Ideas: There seems to be a consensus amongst Anglo-American economists, politicians and journalists that Germany is too austerity focused, bordering on a “savings fetish” and should do more to encourage economic growth and be willing to spend more to achieve this goal. Do you think it’s possible to say that the country’s current situation, the relatively low levels of public debt and unemployment and the existence of a strong national industrial structure, prove German policymakers right in their point of strict budgetary discipline and the fact that other nations rely on German assistance to finance their debt only underlines this?
Professor Jeffery: I think there are a number of issues around that subject. One is that Germany in recent years has acted more self-consciously in self interest in its engagement with its partners in Europe and beyond. In the past self-interest had been served by selflessness in terms of supporting and financing European partners. Self-interest is defined less European now, less collectivized.
A second point is that history is enormously important for understanding Germany today and it is branded on the economic policymaker’s consciousness that Germany had a hyperinflation after the First World War which was very destabilizing not just economically, but was one of the factors that helped to undermine faith in a democratic system. We’re not just talking about economics…
European Ideas: …more political culture maybe?...
Professor Jeffery: Yes, it’s cultural. One of my colleagues in Glasgow used the term “genetic code”, something embedded in the genetic code of German policy. We can’t find the answer simply in economics or in economic rationality.
European Ideas: Would you say that this intrinsic reluctance to spend has served them well on a national level, whilst retaining a slightly “un-European” nature?
Professor Jeffery: Germany is a highly internationalized economy. It has traditionally since the Second World been heavily export dependent and you can only be export dependent with success which includes people buying your goods. There is a real interest in ensuring that the wider market conditions exist in which people have the capacity to buy German goods. There is a tension there which would suggest a more expansionary policy by Germany in supporting stability funds and liquidity in the Greek economy and the Southern European economies in general, which clashes the against the historical and cultural reluctance to do so.
European Ideas: Given the history of German expansionist misadventures in Europe, could the country ever assume a leadership role on the continent and see their leaders overcome the characteristic disinclination to lead? A Germany that takes the role alone in the future it shared most notably with France in the past?
Professor Jeffery: I still think Germany would be extremely reluctant to do so and you can understand why given the historical context. This is partly about self-restraint, the memory of German actions in the past which remain powerful. What is also powerful is the imagery outside of Germany concerning the country. I use the imagery of British stereotypes and prejudices about Germany when I lecture. “Don’t mention the war” as John Cleese put in faulty towers(referring to a sketch of the classic British series where the hotels manager portrayed by Mr.Cleese can’t help but constantly remind a German group of guests of their Nazi past). But you can see in Greece there are lots of examples in the recent protests where World War imagery easily gains traction. “Under the German boot again” was a phrase that echoed through media for example. There are real restraints, both internalized, as referred to with the genetic code, as well as recognizing the sensitivities of others. Consequently I don’t see Germany pursuing a lone role. Effectively it already is the leader in response to the economic crisis, but you can still see that Chancellor Merkel is doing her best to make sure that’s always with Sarkozy, even though in this scenario France is very much the junior partner. It’s one of the reasons why there’s trepidation about his presidential contestant in this year’s French elections Francois Hollande. If he were to win he seems to be thinking of something not quite as extravagant as President Mitterrand’s expansionary policy in the early 80’s, but something that is clearly not consistent with German policy at the moment. This is causing Merkel concern: How can we pursue our interests in a way which doesn’t suggest Germany imposing its will on others, if we can’t rely on our French partners to be alongside us, sharing the same vision?
European Ideas: How will the rest of Europeans tolerate a strengthening Germany? The majority if the continent’s population is likely to have left behind fears of German invasion, will the reaction to this development be positive?
Professor Jeffery: That depends which Europeans you ask. In the initial establishing of the rules of economic and monetary union, the German modelled stability arrangements with expectations of deficit and debt were welcomed by many as a way to gain access to the kind of economic stability Germany had enjoyed. Especially northern Europe and neighbouring countries had a wish to import German monetary rigor because they saw the benefits of such a system. This was very important for the Netherlands, who wanted Bundesbank standards for running a currency and would rather have seen that in the Euro than to continue with the Gulde. There is a division within the EU. On the one hand those countries which endorse German rigor and on the other those which feel they are under pressure because of German rigor.
European Ideas: They way in which Germany is dealing with the Euro crisis appears to be half-hearted, a bit of a sluggish attempt to resolve issues of the common currency. Could this also be the strategy of a heavily export focused nation to avoid their currency appreciating?
Prof Jeffery: I just think it’s the way Germany works. Rather than it being conscious, it’s more a reflection of the way the German political system distributes power and doesn’t concentrate power in a government. It’s partially about coalition government and partially about the more consensual tradition of Germany democracy. You can see how hard it has been for Merkel to get the Bundestag to vote for the financial support of European partners and how much negotiation this took…
European Ideas: …so this is not the repeat of a Bretton-Woods scenario of competitive devaluation? ...
Professor Jeffery: No, I see it more as a kind of pathology of German politics.
European Ideas: Recently Jürgen Habermas, one of Germany’s most distinguished philosophers, complained that the country was pursuing a more inward looking policy. Is this a valid concern and if so is the trend likely to last in the light of the economic distress associated with the shared currency?
Prof Jeffery: We don’t typically criticize other nations for pursuing inward looking national policies aside from Germany. There was a big debate in the 1990s regarding the country’s “Normalization”, suggesting that this was a rather bad thing, contrary to the general perception of the term normal. I’m not sure if I would share Habermas’ starting point of evaluating a focus on self-interest as negative thing. But it is a change which is not simply about this crisis. It’s a change which we have seen emerging over the last 20 years, a change produced in part by the sheer economic challenge of Unification which was much harder than expected. As a consequence, Germany obviously and logically focused attention inward in ways which may have qualified the older commitment to ever closer union, Europeanization as the answer to all questions, but there were other problems they had to look at which took up time and energy. I don’t think what Habermas is saying is new, it reflects a change which is consequent to the opening of the Berlin Wall and has reframed Germany as a state from one that used to instinctively Europeanize its projection of interest to one that now also nationalizes its projection of interest. It is still the most Europeanized, the most instinctively European of the Union’s member states.
European Ideas: Despite the fact that Germany is doing well from an economic and political standpoint with high standards of living, they are not exempt from the demographic problem of an ageing society as experienced throughout developed nations, whilst maintaining a very critical view of immigration. Do you think it is possible that the German people and maybe Europe as a whole following suit, could shift to a more “American” view of encouraging an influx of foreigners to rejuvenate an ailing economy?
Professor Jeffery: “Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland“ (Germany is not an immigration country, a famous quotation that was part of the 1982 CDU/CSU/FDP coalition pact).
I think that is an outdated quotation and an outdated perception of Germany which is clearly a quite diverse society, especially in the bigger urban centres. There is I think in that context a much greater openness than there used to be but it still has quite clearly expressed limits. The UK has no particular problem in saying that Turkey would be a member of the European Union but Germany does, despite being home to many people of Turkish origin. I think it is a bit difficult to imagine a change here because the Christian tradition is one which has more impact in political daily life in Germany than for example here in the UK or in France. That’s partly because we have a very significant German party called the Christian Democratic Union which provides a platform for views which don’t always support diversity as good thing. This is also receding but I think it’s more powerful in Germany than in other countries.
European Ideas: Might that still be one of the strongest uniting factors for the German people an idea of Christian European “Abendland”(German for Occident)?
Professor Jeffery: I think that’s giving it more intellectual rigor than it has, I don’t think there’s a conceptual understanding of Abendland. It reminds me of the controversy over Leitkultur(“leading culture”, a term popular on the right wing of German politics to illustrate a necessity for immigrants to assimilate and to limit immigration in general) which was highly criticized and then faded away quickly. It’s a society which is changing but there are still resentments and those resentments will continue to exist, although they may become weaker.
European Ideas: Polls show that lots of Germans worry that the country has passed its zenith. Has Germany already reached its highest international position of power and significance in the world?
Professor Jeffery: In some sense that is unarguable, if one looks at the bare data. Brazil has just overtaken the UK in terms of GDP. It will overtake Germany at some point, probably in the relatively foreseeable future. Does that matter? I think Germans worry about it much less than Brits worry about the equivalent issues and again this largely due to the negative memory of the role Germany played when it still was a dominant global force.