Europe and the EU

Can Germany be a moral leader in Europe?

Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister we all know very well, has recently published about the moral leadership of Germany. Considering happenings from EU politics in summer 2015 it surprises how he finds almost praising words for the country whose Minister of Finance, Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble, has put so much effort in dictating Greece what to do and what not.

Spardiktat was the word of the month, everyone was hashtagging the #Grexit and later the #Schäublexit or similar. Initiatives were formed to “import Greek products” and at the same time to “boycott German products”. Stubbornness and egoism characterized German economic and fiscal policy in the European Union. All European neighbours felt reminded of the German tendency to aspire power over all and everyone. Suddenly, the fear of a 3rd World War (triggered by the Ukraine Crisis) seemed to be forgotten, instead, a decay of the European Union came closer than ever before.  

But much has happened between the (latest) peak of the Greek Crisis in July and now. Thousands of Syrian refugees have reached out for Europe, pictures of drowned kids went around the world, the treatment of refugees in Eastern Europe awakened terrible memories of the 1940th. In the commonly free and liberate European Union, religion was used to classify people worthy or not to find refuge in European Countries. Imperialist thinking spread all over the continent. Fleeing people got not only terribly criminalized, but almost dehumanized. Or, at least not recognized as people of same category. It was all about “us”, superior Westerners against “them”, poor people whose destiny lies in the West’s hands. The narratives were dominated by racism, megalomania and nationalism. The narrative was dictated by ignorance, fear and hatred.  


And then happened what Varoufakis describes on with reference to a great German moralist: the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Despite all expectations, Germany’s government for once acted not rationally and purely efficiently. But instead it impressed the world’s community with its moral approach to deal with the refugee crisis in Europe. It is relieving for Germans to be again perceived more positively in the international Community. Willkommenskultur is a fantastic word to be associated with. Still, following the latest events on the topic in Germany draws a picture not so pretty. Surely, it was impressive to see Angela Merkel throw European Politics overboard (in detail the Dublin-Agreement Germany had been very much in favour of when it was negotiated) as only acceptable answer to a humanitarian crisis. It was fantastic to watch videos of people organizing welcome parties and greeting refugees cheerfully at their arrival. At some points the country seemed to be in a state of ecstasy. While protests against new arrivals gained a more and more explosive and radical nature in the East of Germany and Europe the positive voices continuously managed to drown their populist screams. In the end, even the yellow press newspaper “Bild” gave in and displaced hate campaigns with (considering their past publishing probably pseudo-) empathic messages.


Where did all that come from? Is it, because after all the German government found their almost lost sense of international responsibility? Or is it, because Germany likes to do their own thing in European politics? They like to do the opposite of the majority’s interest and that – luckily this time – the minority (together with Germany namely Sweden) is on the good side (unlike during the Greek crisis)?


Watching news report about politicians tackling the refugee crisis or trying to interact with refugees in Germany is mostly embarrassing. Error message: Feelings not found. Still, Germany can be lucky about an incredibly active and indeed moral civil society. Critical voices asked whether or not this civil society would possibly free or excuse the German government from their responsibility. A good example for this was the situation at theLaGeSo (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales), the office where refugees have to register in Berlin. In the heat of August (temperatures around 35 degrees), refugees where left to themselves until Berliners came to bring water, goods and food. The first official step in order to tackle the situation of the refugees was to shut down the provisory kitchen for reasons of hygiene.


Still, at some point the government took a stand and opened up the country for everyone in need (at least from Syria). This is a very noble and very, very necessary step. It is just as necessary to revise the German asylum system. It is nice to send a signal to Europe, the international community and to the German citizens – but it would be even nicer to take some innovative and lasting steps to relieve the federal states in Germany. Asylum policy must be centralized and seen as a common challenge. This does not only go for national politics, but is just as necessary in the European Union. It is necessary to push European debates about a European Asylum Systems and the fair distribution of refugees within the European Union.


“There is no Europe in this Union and there is no Union in this Union”, claimed Jean-Claude Juncker, the president in the European Commission in this State of the Union earlier in September. He is right. How that can be changed? Varoufakis writes in his closing paragraph that Germany needs to “extend its moral leadership from the refugee issue to the Eurozone’s architecture”.


What he forgets is that it is a lot easier to mobilize people – or to have people mobilize themselves – for humanitarian issues than for an economic crisis nobody really understands. And it was not the German government who initiated this exemplary behaviour – it really was the people of Germany. The government tends to go with the public opinion, at least sometimes, if protests get too loud. Germany is not yet at the point where moral, innovation and brevity determine the political discourse. If that would be so, Germany would go and discuss not only the outcome of the crises, but as well the reason of it. Moral leadership would not only mean to deal with the consequences of international politics, but to also admit mistakes and foolish, selfish actions taken leading to those consequences.


It is desirable and there is room to hope that the government is moving into the right direction. If so, it could serve as a role model as a whole in a few years. As for now and as for the refugee crisis their role and initiative cannot be underestimated. But effusive praise is neither what they deserve.


And after all, what should be mentioned in the end, is the fact that Germany, if it would be really interested in a common European project, would not strive for leadership. It would give moral advise, serve as a role model. “Germany, the reluctant hegemon”, titled the Economist in 2013. It is not desirable, to be the first among 28, but it is to be one among 28. Moral inspiration can and should be given, moral leadership though should neither be taken nor desired, since that would be a contradiction in terms.  


September 2015

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