Germany's neo-Bismarckian strategy

Hans Kundnani / Oct 2016

Photo: European Union

Since the beginning of the euro crisis, many have described Germany as Europe’s “hegemon”. Some have qualified the term by referring to Germany as a “reluctant hegemon”, suggesting that, though German is not yet a European hegemon, only a kind of mental block prevents it from becoming one. In reality, however, Germany is not even a potential European hegemon. Rather it has reverted to the position of “semi-hegemony” that it occupied 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.

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.” But although Germany may be bigger and more powerful than any other EU member states, it still does not have the resources to impose its will on the continent or solve Europe’s problems on its own. In other words, Brexit does not fundamentally alter Germany’s semi-hegemonic position in Europe.

However, what Brexit has already done is to increase 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. In other words, while Germany is on paper more powerful than it was before, it finds itself in an even more precarious position.

The new conventional wisdom in Berlin about how to respond to this situation is the idea of “Führung aus der Mitte,” or “leading from the centre.” The term was originally used by German Defence 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 centre” 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 centre” means in practice is a kind of hub-and-spoke Europe in which diplomacy centers on Berlin – the kind of Europe Bismarck sought to create. The obvious 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.

Immediately after the British 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 16 September. 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 ultimate danger of the neo-Bismarckian strategy is that it could lead to the coalescence of anti-German coalitions. This is exactly what Bismarck feared – 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. The result could be something like “Isolation aus der Mitte”, or “isolation from the centre”.

Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani

October 2016

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