Germany’s Neo-Bismarckian Strategy
Photo by: German Federal Archives
The vote by the British people to leave the European Union has thrust Berlin into an even more pivotal position than it was already in – the future of the EU will now revolve even more tightly around Germany than ever before. In that sense, the United Kingdom has unintentionally created a “more German Europe.”
However, it is far from clear whether Germany is stronger or weaker than it was before. On paper, it will clearly be more powerful as its relative political and economic weight increases. But it will still lack the resources to be a European hegemon. For example, Germany makes up only 28 percent of the eurozone’s total GDP – between them France (21 percent) and Italy (16 percent) make up a bigger share.
This illustrates that, with or without the UK, Germany is not a European hegemon at all, as many have described it since the beginning of the euro crisis in 2010, but rather a “semi-hegemon.” The term was coined in the 1950s by the historian Ludwig Dehio to refer to the position Germany occupied in Europe between 1871 and 1945. At that time, Germany was famously too big for a balance of power but too small for hegemony – with catastrophic consequences for Europe.
Germany now seems to have reverted to this position – but in geo-economic rather than geopolitical form. Although Germany may be bigger and more powerful than any other member states, it does not have the economic resources to impose its will on the continent or solve Europe’s problems in other ways – even without the UK.
However, although Brexit does not fundamentally alter Germany’s semi-hegemonic position in Europe, it has already increased the perception of German dominance in Europe. In fact, fear of German power was one of the reasons why many people elsewhere in Europe, including in traditionally pro-German smaller member states, wanted the UK to remain in the EU. Since the June 23 vote, the fear of German power has increased.
The new conventional wisdom in Berlin about how to respond to this precarious situation is the idea of “Führung aus der Mitte,” or “leading from the center.” The term was originally used by Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2015 to describe how Germany could take greater “responsibility” in security policy. But it has since become used more widely to refer to an alternative to German unilateralism. The idea is that Germany should drive European policy – but do so by seeking to find a consensus among member states.
Within Germany, the idea of “leading from the center” has generally thought of as an expression of its “European vocation.” Elsewhere, it has been seen as an expression of Germany’s ongoing reluctance to show real “leadership.” But its real significance is that it is something like a geo-economic version, in the institutional setting of the EU, of the strategy Chancellor Otto von Bismarck pursued after German unification in 1871 – with analogous dangers.
What the idea of “leading from the center” means in practice is a kind of hub-and-spoke Europe in which diplomacy centers on Berlin. Immediately after the referendum, for example, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited – or “summoned,” as some saw it – the foreign ministers of the six founding member states of the EU to Berlin. In the weeks afterwards, Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel met other European leaders to prepare for the post-Brexit summit that took place in Bratislava on September 16. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi refused to join Merkel and French President François Hollande at a joint press conference after the summit because he didn’t “share their conclusions on economy and migration.”
The danger of this neo-Bismarckian strategy in which Germany plays “honest broker” and forms ad hoc coalitions with other member states on different issues is that it alienates those member states that are excluded from any grouping – as happened after the meeting of the six founding member states – and could lead to the coalescence of anti-German coalitions. This was Bismarck’s nightmare – what he called his “cauchemar des coalitions.”
We have already seen this dynamic within the euro and Schengen areas, from which the UK opted out. In the euro crisis, the so-called periphery was – and still is – under pressure to form what George Soros called a “common front” to force Germany to accept greater risk sharing. In the refugee crisis, the Visegrad Four – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – got together to jointly resist German pressure to accept their “fair share” of asylum seekers.
With the sharpened perception of German dominance of the whole EU after the Brexit vote, the pressure will now increase on other member states to form coalitions in different policy areas in order to balance against Germany. As a result, Germany could paradoxically be weaker – that is, less able to get what it wants – and the EU could be less stable than it was before Brexit.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.