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Where there’s a will, there’s a way? Germany and the EU leadership quest

In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and other crises facing the European Union (EU), calls for Germany to take on leadership in the EU have again grown louder.

At the same time, Germany’s track record in terms of leadership is rather poor. In fact, the EU’s largest member state is (in)famous for its alleged leadership avoidance reflex.

Much academic research agrees that Germany has failed in systematically providing leadership in the EU. Rather, it has often shied away from the spotlight and shown little interest in assuming a leading role, other than in cases where there was an obvious overlap with its self-interest.

In discussions on German leadership, however, one key question has so far been consistently ignored: does Germany view itself as a country that should and could lead?

The issue of self-concept is critical, since leadership as a concept loses much of its value if we believe that it can happen by accident or without any kind of willingness to lead. Moreover, calls for more German leadership in the future are destined to remain unanswered if there is a lack of any such ambition.

“The issue of self-concept is critical since leadership as a concept loses much of its value if we believe that it can happen without willingness to lead.”

New data from an elite survey on the attitudes of both politicians and high-ranking state officials help us fill this gap.

On a normative level, the responses gathered show that the German elite has indeed overcome its leadership avoidance reflex. Most respondents acknowledge that Germany should take on a leading role in the EU, for instance by providing a common vision for the future and contributing more than others to improving the functioning of the Union.

At the same time, the survey data also exposes a striking gap between the normative endorsement of German leadership and the assessment of Germany’s actual leadership performance.

When asked about their primary policy field, less than 6% of respondents believe that Germany takes on a leadership role, and only about a third state that this is the case at least most of the time. The largest gap concerns Germany’s role in providing a vision for the future, where 90% agree or rather agree that Germany should do this, while only just over 20% believe that it actually does.

Hence, the survey of the German political elite reveals a significant aspiration-reality gap regarding leadership. But what does this mean for the EU moving forward?

On the one hand, it is clear that large parts of Germany’s political elite increasingly acknowledges that it ought to shoulder an extra amount of responsibility for the EU’s future and the collective good. Given the current polycrisis, this is good news for all those who wish for Germany to play a more decisive role.

On the other hand, the failure in actually providing such leadership casts a shadow of doubt on the prospects of German leadership. The institutional setup of the EU (many veto points and large heterogeneity) makes life hard for any potential leader and some reform of the EU’s decision-making rules, such as the abolition of unanimity voting in the Council, would contribute to moving beyond a “leaderless Europe.” Still, even in the eyes of its own elites, Germany could be doing much more to provide the EU with a vision and roadmap for the future.

Most importantly, however, Germany must internalize the fact that leadership is not possible without taking on additional costs—both economic and political. In a much-reported speech at the Charles University in Prague, Chancellor Scholz outlined the EU’s challenges ahead and Germany’s plans how to address them. Not only did he carefully avoid the term “leadership” in his speech, in most cases he also abstained from stating what Germany in particular could do to help the EU reach its common goals.

“Germany must internalize the fact that leadership is not possible without taking on additional costs—both economic and political.”

However, leadership does not end with identifying problems and suggesting possible solutions. Instead, it requires an extra effort—i.e. the provision of more material or ideational resources than other member states—to be successful. This will inevitably involve putting the EU’s common goal ahead of particular German interests. Skeptics may object that this is too much to ask of national leaders elected to represent their country’s interests in the first place. If this is true, however, regional leadership would be doomed to fail in the face of short-term national interests.

Hence, while Germany’s newly found self-concept is a major stepping stone on the way to shouldering more responsibility in the future, the realization of political leadership in the EU still remains a big challenge. In key areas like the Common Foreign and Security Policy, unanimity voting still presents a major obstacle to successful leadership, and it is far from obvious that Germany will be able to convince the rest of the bloc that reform is necessary. Moreover, a domestic public opinion easily swayed by any hint of “unjust” redistribution of German resources adds a further constraint. Finally, the German political elite needs to internalize, too, that it must go beyond the role of a “normalized power” by contributing significantly more resources than other member states if it wants to provide successful leadership to the EU. 

Featured image by Maheshkumar Painam on Unsplash (public domain)

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