The vote in the UN Security Council that sanctioned military intervention in Libya may have serious consequences for European politics. Whereas Russia’ and China’s decision to abstain from the vote came as a pleasant surprise to the resolution’s backers, Germany’s abstention came as a total shock.
Germany’s allies in the EU and NATO stopped just short of publicly accusing Berlin of betraying the ideals of Euro-Atlantic solidarity. Indeed, Germany itself feels ill at ease in the company of the BRIC nations, which have distanced themselves from the action, rather than among its usual allies. Germany’s foreign policy, which has been rolling along the same groove since the 1950s, is now changing, contrary to the desire of its ruling class.
The West European political model that took shape in the second half if the 20th century was borne out of a need to prevent the catastrophic wars that tore Europe apart in the first half of the century. NATO and the European Community initially put a lot of effort into locking Germany into tight alliances, making it impossible for the nation that started two world wars to launch another war of expansion. The only way Germany could expand was economically, which it did with enormous success, rapidly becoming Europe’s economic powerhouse.
German reunification after the collapse of the socialist regime raised concerns in neighboring countries. But they calmed down after Germany’s consolidation was counterbalanced with the expansion of its traditional alliances. That strategy worked for a while: NATO and the European Union became leaders of European and even global politics. Germany became the engine behind European economic integration, while its main partner in Europe, France, took the lead on political integration.
With the Soviet threat gone, the United States could finally relax when it came to European security, but was still eager to get involved in regional issues from the Balkans to the post-Soviet republics. Progress toward a “new world order” reached its high-water mark in the closing years of the 20th century: the EU and NATO embarked on a large-scale expansion; a single EU currency was adopted; and NATO allies bombed Yugoslavia. Germany played an important role in all of this. The German Army even gained some much-needed combat practice against Milosevic, for the first time since WWII.
Everything changed in the 21st century. The U.S. focus on Europe waned as more pressing concerns came to the fore, such as the Middle East, terrorism and the rise of Asia. In Europe, there was a feeling that the limit of integration had been reached; there was even some backsliding, with the ambition and influence of individual national states on the rise. It became increasingly difficult for the nations of Europe to coordinate policies and share the financial burden.
These changes in Europe were signs that the whole structure was eroding. Germany, in particular, began to deviate from its usual ways. It was caught between poorly compatible processes and mutually exclusive commitments. This crisis of the European project had to be managed by a strong political leader and supported by an economic sponsor; the EU naturally expected its strongest and most influential member to assume both roles. But Germany had grown accustomed to taking the backseat – the result of half a century of its allies working to keep German ambitions in check. Any independent move by Berlin immediately puts its partners on guard. In other words, they expect Germany to take the lead, but only to the extent that its large neighbors allow.
At the same time, Germany is facing growing public discontent over the economic situation. Germans are increasingly unwilling to play the role of Europe’s largest purse and to pay the debts of other irresponsible governments. Recent regional elections captured the discontent. With harsh disputes going on in the country over Germany’s readiness to render financial aid to Greece, the conservative Christian Democratic Union party was defeated last May in North Rhine-Westphalia, a CDU bastion since WWII; losing Hamburg and Baden-Württemberg this year was just as bad. Although it is believed that the party’s defeat in the latest election was in part a response to the nuclear accident in Japan (which struck a blow to the pro-nuclear government), Germans in the wealthy south of the country are obviously unhappy about the economic spongers in the EU.
The EU is struggling to overcome the disconnection between its interdependent currency union, on the one hand, and the lack of a coordinated economic policy of its 17 members, on the other. Without radical restructuring, the region may soon face economic collapse. Germany will need to display strong political will to carry out the necessary reforms, but this will require strong political leadership – something that is in short supply in Germany, and in France for that matter. Nicolas Sarkozy is facing a tough reelection campaign in 2012. And his attempt to score some extra political points by flexing his military muscles in North Africa has opened up a new rift with Berlin.
Germany is reluctant to join a military operation that is highly unpopular at home. The government already has difficulty explaining to the people why they send troops to Afghanistan. Admittedly, Germany was not asked to send aircraft over the skies of Libya, as critics of Germany’s position point out; it would have been enough to show solidarity with its allies at the UN.
The problems facing the liberal Free Democratic Party – the junior partner in the ruling coalition represented by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle – might be another reason for Germany’s unexpected decision to abstain from the UN vote on Libya. With the party’s approval rating in free fall (down to one-third of what it was 18 months ago), the party leaders are making rash moves in a desperate attempt to hold voters’ interest.
It’s ironic that Germany’s partners are displeased with the triumph of their policy. For half a century, they tried to keep Germany’s militaristic tendencies in check, only to now criticize the country for its reluctance to fight.
The role Germany assumes in European politics will, to a great extent, determine the European Union’s immediate future: whether it falls apart or reorganizes under different principles.