Merkel herself oscillates between envisaging a greater role for the directly elected European Parliament and a strong pragmatic preference for intergovernmental agreements, such as last year’s fiscal compact for the eurozone. With a growing emphasis in German debates on the importance of democratic national sovereignty, encouraged by judgments of the constitutional court, there are also calls for the voices of national parliaments to be heard more directly in Brussels.
So the Germans, like everyone else, are intellectually juggling three kinds of legitimacy: supranational, through a European Commission overseen by a directly elected European Parliament; intergovernmental, in the Councils of the EU, which bring together representatives of democratically elected national governments; and the involvement of national parliaments. Whatever eventually comes out of the sausage factory of Brussels negotiations, probably several years hence, will not be neat and tidy, and it will not be made only in Germany: less a Bundesrepublik Europa, more a Holy Republican Commonwealth.
While the wheels of economic policy and institutional negotiations grind slowly and exceeding small, there is a crying need for poetry. Europeans are desperate to be given a sense of direction, purpose, and hope. A German federal chancellor once offered a superb example of such visionary leadership. Willy Brandt wrapped his new Ostpolitik, originally known as a Merkel-like “policy of small steps,” in inspirational rhetoric. The Germans, he declared, should be “a nation of good neighbors, at home and abroad.”
As Merkel’s biographer Stefan Kornelius observes, she has many strengths, but pulse-quickening oratory will never be among them. Unfortunately, this is not just true of her. The entire German political class uses a kind of sanitized Lego-language, snapping together prefabricated phrases made of hollow plastic. Most German politicians are more likely to fly unaided to the moon than they are to coin a striking phrase.
Why? Partly because there are so many ghosts in the German language. As the former foreign minister Joschka Fischer has noted, you can have a conference of young leaders, but junge Führer…? I find people often slip into English to use the word “leadership.” So, because of Hitler, the palette of contemporary German political rhetoric is deliberately narrow, cautious, and boring. Then there is the fact that, for a long time now, talented people have preferred to go into business, or to study and work abroad. (I could fill a whole government with our outstanding German students at Oxford.) While German business has globalized itself spectacularly over the last quarter-century, with companies holding board meetings in English, and managers being as much at home in Shanghai and São Paulo as in Stuttgart, the political class has become even more provincial than it was before.
Again, this provincialism partly goes back to the answers given to earlier German questions. Since the country’s political system was deliberately decentralized, politicians have generally worked their way up through the politics of the federal states, the Länder. But didn’t Brandt, and Helmut Schmidt, and Helmut Kohl come up that provincial ladder too? Yes, but at least, unlike today’s professional politicians, they had done something else before they became politicians. And they were shaped, given a continental and global perspective, by the experience of two wars: World War II (which Schmidt experienced as a soldier, Kohl as a teenager) and the cold war. Since the answer to the post-1945 question of Germany’s division was only to be found in Moscow, Washington, Paris, and London, the leaders of the pre- unification Federal Republic simply had to be global. Hence the apparent paradox that while German power has grown, its political class has shrunk.
So, who will speak for Europe? Starting on September 23, the day after the Bundestag elections, the European conundrum must be addressed more decisively by Germany. But this Germany is neither objectively nor subjectively big enough to solve it on its own. The Berlin republic can be, at best, first among equals. Its leadership must be understated, collaborative, building on carefully cultivated relations with small as well as large states—which is, after all, the distinctive foreign policy tradition of the Federal Republic. And it knows it.
Germany therefore needs all the help it can get from its European friends and partners. Only together can we generate the policies and institutions, but also that fresh breeze of poetry, to get the European ship sailing again. The answers to this new German question will not be found by Germans alone.