Rethinking Europe

The Dialectics of German Leadership in Europe

What does the balance of power in the EU shifting towards Germany really mean?

Credit: M.Stasy


  • What does the balance of power in the EU shifting towards Germany really mean?
  • Radoslaw Sikorski: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”
  • Typical calls for German “leadership” are framed as: Germany should lead and can count on followers.
  • Complaints about lacking European “solidarity” emanate from Greece to Germany and Spain to Poland.

Europe and Germany are in real trouble. You realize this when one can read columns in The Economist entitled “The dispensable French,” while the cover sells Chancellor Merkel as “The indispensable European.”

When observers of international politics diagnose, with some justification, French dispensability and German indispensability in European matters at the same time, anyone with some knowledge of European history realizes that Europe’s crisis must be serious indeed.

The overwhelming majority of observers argue that the balance of power and status has tilted toward Germany.

That may be so. But what precisely does it mean? When leadership pops up in a German context, the “Führer” is always close by. The Greek crisis and the “return of the ugly German” have provided ample evidence of that.

To understand the dialectics of German leadership in Europe, it is very instructive to examine the seminal quote by former Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski.

While in office, he famously stated: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.”

Expectations from Germany

What is largely forgotten is that Sikorski continued his thought with the following (almost never quoted) words: “[y]ou [i.e., Germany] may not fail to lead. Not dominate, but to lead in reform. Provided you include us in decision-making, Poland will support you.”

This is the typical pattern which shows up when German leadership is called for: Germany should “lead” (as potential follower X prefers) – and it can count on willing followership (on the condition that X is “included in decision making.”)

In large part, this leadership experience is shared by all potential leaders who must count on willing followers. Even the much mightier United States is no exception.

In the months and years ahead, Germany may well find itself in an increasingly unenviable position. On the one hand, Germany “plays in an entirely different league politically compared to the Germany which celebrated its reunification 25 years ago.”

On the other hand, the gap between expectations from German leadership and deliverables — in terms of both successful German “taming” of Europe’s centrifugal forces and willing European followership — will almost certainly widen.

More pressure on Germany

Pressures are increasing simultaneously from within (in the aftermaths of the AfD-related right-wing backlash in German elections) and from outside (with continuing old crises and the possible addition of a few new ones.)

As fundamental beliefs in stable and “open-ended” collaboration within the European Union have been shattered and diffuse reciprocity — one of the key characteristics of any genuinely multilateral arrangement — is no longer as much part and parcel of daily practices of multilateralism in the European Union, we have entered a new and more uncertain framework.

Complaints about lacking European “solidarity” emanate from Greece to Germany and from Spain to Poland. They are expressions of frustration about the double bind in which the European Union’s nation states find themselves.

By bidding good-bye to the federal EU which the early EU advocates had envisioned, the alternative — “intergovernmental” solutions — ironically depend ever more on Germany.

Unenviable Germany

As a consequence, they produce precisely the kind of “German Europe” which presumably no one wants. Note, however, that this is not a Europe “dominated” by Germany in the sense that Berlin ever more often gets its way.

Rather, what looms at the horizon is a weak European Union, in Hannah Arendt’s political vocabulary. It is weak in the sense that it lacks the ability to “act in concert.” That is how Arendt defines power – and power of this type can manifest itself only where word and deed have not parted company.

This is a bar which Germany’s leadership personel has been able to meet in the past. But the bar has been raised significantly recently, leaving German leadership in an unenviable position indeed.

Editor’s Note: This feature has been adapted from the essay “Germany’s World. Power and Followership in a Crisis-ridden Europe” published in “Global Affairs.”

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About Gunther Hellmann

Gunther Hellmann is Professor of Political Science at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University.

Responses to “The Dialectics of German Leadership in Europe”

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  1. On June 10, 2016 at 4:09 am tini responded with... #

    You have a point in so far as within the current weak EU any major resource transfer depends on Germany easing conditionally or prolonging pain. Yes, this translates into power without the need for posturing. However, small countries have always feared domination by big neighbors while free riding on them. Just think of Luxembourg’s parasitic tax regime. That wont change as the pendulum of upside goes back and forth.
    However, current softness in the EU prohibits to administer any kind of required ‘tough love’ neither to the big or the small. Correspondingly nationalism has risen as grievances are left to fester and while all parties engage in finger pointing it just gets worse. This bodes badly for small nations which have a bigger say in the EU setup than in crisis measures where they cannot carry weight. A breakup would set them back to following big neighbors pretty much entirely unless they invite a Russia or China to have them for a quick lunch.

  2. On June 10, 2016 at 9:44 am Andrew responded with... #

    This is exactly the case. The economic –and now political– interests in Europe are too divergent for any kind of Union to exist. Some say that the EU was doomed as soon as they unified their currency without unifying their fiscal policy; and now with the politics as fractured as they are, there is little hope for fiscal unification. At least when each country has the power to print themselves into a hyper-inflationary oblivion, the pricing would balance out because of the floating point exchange rates. When you are all locked into a currency, without the power to print, there is no balancing of funds.