Wolfgang Ischinger on Germany’s hegemony trap

Instead of playing Europe’s hegemon, Germany should focus on strengthening the EU, writes Wolfgang Ischinger. 

The prolonged Greek debt crisis and the ongoing influx of refugees into Europe have ignited a debate about Germany’s role within the European Union. Has Germany become the European hegemon? And if not, should it assume that role, as some commentators have suggested, in order to prevent the European project from failing?

‎The idea of German hegemony – as should be clear to any student of history – is self-defeating. Instead, Germany should assume the position of Europe’s “Chief Facilitating Officer,” as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier aptly called it, focused on strengthening the EU by working to create the conditions necessary for a truly common European foreign and security policy, one that proactively prepares the continent to meet the challenges it confronts. By throwing its full weight into this task, Germany would not only promote Europe’s influence in the world; it would also deflate the discussion of hegemony.

The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon was based on the idea that the EU’s prosperity and security depend on its members looking beyond their parochial interests and act jointly, in their common interest. In order to achieve this, the treaty created posts, such as the President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, whose incumbents could speak and act on behalf of the entire EU.

As former Belgian Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak once noted, “There are only two types of states in Europe: small states, and small states that have not yet realized that they are small.” Unfortunately, for the moment, too many of the EU’s member states fall into the latter category.

The new offices established by the Treaty of Lisbon have helped the EU achieve some important successes – most notably during negotiations with Iran and with Serbia and Kosovo. But there has been no consistent effort to strengthen their powers. Far too often, when it comes to dealing with foreign-policy crises and strategic challenges, EU institutions are assigned a minor role. The Ukraine crisis, where France and Germany have taken the lead, is but one example of this.

And yet, even as Euro-skepticism has been rising across the continent, there remains widespread popular support for a common, more powerful European foreign policy. In a recent article in the Financial Times, former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski outlined how this might be achieved. When a foreign-policy issue arises, member states should assess whether it would be most appropriately addressed by individual states or at the European level.

In the vast majority of cases in which common action would be preferable, member states would provide full support to the EU. As a result, European Council President Donald Tusk, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker would play leading roles in European foreign policy.

Unfortunately, this is far from established practice. The EU’s members tend to pursue dissonant policies, weakening, rather than strengthening, Europe’s global position. And there are few things the rulers of China and Russia enjoy more than playing the EU’s members off against one another.

Germany has an opportunity to provide a counterweight to long-standing British objections to a unified foreign policy. By putting its considerable influence in the service of a cohesive, strategically focused foreign and security policy, Germany would simultaneously achieve two key objectives: a stronger and more capable EU and a more European Germany.

A good starting point would be to act on longstanding calls for closer integration of EU members’ armed forces. Germany should put its full weight behind “pooling and sharing” military resources, even if the United Kingdom is resistant to such an effort. After all, the time when EU member states went to war alone ended more than three decades ago, with the Falklands War.

“Poor old Germany,” Henry Kissinger once quipped. “Too big for Europe, too small for the world.” Fortunately, Germany has a way out of this trap. As a proactive and constructive part of the EU, Germany is big enough for the world, and at the same time not too big for its neighbors.

As Steinmeier and German Minister of Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel, recently wrote, “Only together, and only at the European level, will we be able at all to find rational solutions.” They were writing about the refugee crisis, but they could just as easily have been referring to Germany’s place in the EU today.

This text was first published by Project Syndicate.

More about the author

  • Wolfgang Ischinger, Professor Emeritus of Security Policy and Diplomatic Practice | Founding Director, Centre for International Security