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The New Battle For Berlin

Centrality, not hegemony is the name of the German political game. They love network logic.

October 13, 2016

Credit: M.Stasy

One of the very few clear outcomes of Britain’s Brexit vote is the now indisputable centrality of Germany in European affairs.

As a somewhat distant, but effective member of the EU, the UK was a pivotal point in European affairs, skillfully playing its favorite historic role as the “offshore balancer.”

Inside the European Commission and the many councils of the EU, the country also acted as the primary enforcer of more market-based thinking in Europe.

Abandoning its historical role

That the UK would effectively remove itself from that vital role is one of the most stunning acts of isolationism in our time – and an even more stunning abandonment of what seemed to be deeply engrained national traditions.

And that British conservatives, after removing themselves from the continent’s politics, then complain of Germany’s “dominance” as a reason to stay away is the height of folly and irrationality.

True, from outside the EU, the UK – whether or not it stays ensemble – can still play a role. But it is much harder to have a significant impact if one is not at the table in Brussels where the actual decisions over Europe’s future are being made.

Worry about German “hegemony?”

All of this leads to two important questions:

  1. Is Germany the net winner of the current British brouhaha?
  2. And do we have to worry about German “hegemony?”

Let’s tackle the latter point first. There is plenty of commentary, especially from U.S. voices, calling on Germans to finally feel their oats and act with much more resoluteness on the international stage.

Coming from Washington, the “what’s wrong with German hegemony?” argument often boils down to a thinly veiled advocacy of a higher German defense budget. That aside, there is also a genuine and quite relaxed desire to have a reliable deputy in Europe.

From Washington’s perspective, the main trouble with the Germans is that there aren’t really keen to live up to the American prodding.

This isn’t so much a function of the country’s history, although the somber legacy of the Third Reich certainly plays a role. It isn’t a function either of Germans shying away from taking responsibility. Nor is it one to duck higher military spending.

The Germans’ impeccable network logic

Ultimately, the German hesitation is a function of European realities. “Hegemony” is a complete dead end. Even if it were available to Germans for the asking, they wouldn’t go for it.

This isn’t false modesty, but the reflection of an astute understanding of international relations in the modern era. As with networks, what matters the most is to be the hub, not the hegemon.

Viewed in that light, Berlin does not need to make any fuss about occupying the central spot in Europe. That position is going to be further strengthened and even less disputed by the UK exit from the EU.

Internal German debate often reflects wider Europe’s

Does one have to worry about Germany’s centrality? I would argue not. On most issues that are at the core of the European debate, various key players inside the German debate actually end up arguing positions that are held by other countries.

In other words, the German debate is broad enough to reflect the Many often-contentious positions held across Europe.

This statement may be regarded as a crass overstatement or wishful thinking by some. After all, aren’t the Germans the enforcers of a harsh austerity line in Europe? Not so fast.

Regarding that particular debate, for example, there is an open dispute between the German Finance Ministry and the SPD, the junior partner in the Merkel government.

True, the SPD ultimately is on the losing end of that debate. But that’s not un-democratic. It’s just a reflection of the voting shares (= power structure) inside Germany, which — abstracting from just Germany — also happens to reflect the economic weighting in Europe.

Thus, the German position often – as in this case — is an actually fair representation of the positions reflected by the collective power structure inside the EU. There, the center-left, much to its chagrin, plays second fiddle – based on electoral returns, it is important to note.

That lay of the land underscores once again the centrality of Germany: If its politics were to move from a grand coalition to a left-of-center coalition, then the prospects for the left in Europe and the policy prescriptions it favors would look considerably better.

Does that make Germany an honest broker inside Europe? Not quite. The country has interests and Germany also takes positions based on the eventual outcome of the debate at home.

Germany the net winner of Brexit?

The other big question: Is Germany a net winner of the current British brouhaha and Brexit? Hardly.

The most elemental role of the UK inside the EU was that it was often the decisive factor in stiffening Germany’s resolve to opt for a more market-based approach.

This remains an important factor, especially to counter the constant French refrain for a far more statist approach.

Unless things change drastically, this constant nudge from London is now bound to fall by the wayside. That will make it much harder for the Germans.

Absent the constant British reminders and position-taking in all sorts of European councils, the Germans must now do more to internalize the market impetus. That doesn’t quite come natural to them.


In international relations in the modern era, what matters the most is to be the hub, not the hegemon.

One of the outcomes of the Brexit vote is the indisputable centrality of Germany in European affairs.

Is Germany a net winner of the current British brouhaha and the Brexit? Hardly.

Prospects for the left in Europe would look better if German politics moved from a grand coalition to a left-of-center coalition.