Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Stefan LehneVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

If Germany isn’t leading, who else is? France has become too weak. Italy is down. The UK is almost out. The European Commission has lost ground. Apart from the European Central Bank, Germany is the last one standing. It has become the EU’s “indispensable actor” by default, not by volition.

Unlike France, Germany never saw the EU as a means through which to project its power, but as a way to be accepted. Berlin is deeply ambivalent about exerting leadership. It is pleased about its new importance but hates to be seen throwing its weight around.

Germany also lacks a clear idea of what to do with Europe. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and philosopher Jürgen Habermas continue to dream the federalist dream, but millions of Germans fear that their life savings will be sacrificed on the altar of European solidarity. The majority of Germans remain solidly pro-European, but they have certainly become more cautious. The notion that “more Europe” is automatically in Germany’s interest does not sell anymore.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership style suits this ambivalence just fine. She wants to do what is necessary at a given moment, but nothing beyond this. Banking union will be completed, but in its own time. Treaty reform will be required, but probably not now. And as the pressure from the financial markets subsides, so does the drive to tackle the structural deficiencies of the euro.

For want of an alternative, Germany is leading Europe. But it does so in a minimalistic and reluctant manner. Whether this will suffice to contain the centrifugal forces unleashed by the crisis is very much open to doubt.


Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

No country is leading Europe. In fact, Europe is leaderless.

This is the fault not of Chancellor Merkel, but of the weight of history. The idea of leadership—das Führerprinzip—has negative connotations in Germany for obvious reasons. Germany has never had or even sought an exclusive leadership role in Europe. German chancellors have exercised great leadership only when they have had a partner of real weight. Think of Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, or Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand (or even Margaret Thatcher, up to a point).

Today Merkel has no one to partner with. Her alliance with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was an embarrassment, and now the French left under President François Hollande is becoming euroskeptical. The presence of a German-speaking French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has made little difference to Franco-German relations. Merkel is now thinking of her reelection and retirement. Like Hollande, she is struggling with domestic political problems and has no time to think through a strategy for Europe.

The zero-sum game between the many on the left and right who blame Germany for not solving the euro crisis and Germans who blame feckless Southern Europeans for causing it is reducing European politics to playpen level. Too often, German ideas of leadership focus on calls for more Europe, meaning more power for the European Commission or the European Parliament. But this is less and less appealing, and a federal “ever closer union” is yesterday’s story.


Shimon SteinFormer ambassador of Israel to Germany and senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University

This question seems to have come into vogue, but it is getting a bit tiring. I don’t recall the issue of German leadership having arisen in times of prosperity—as if leadership only needs to be demonstrated in times of crisis.

I wonder whether the question of German leadership (or lack of it) is the real problem that the EU is currently facing. Even if Germany under Chancellor Merkel asserts itself, will that solve the self-inflicted problems that France, Spain, Italy, and others are experiencing? Will German leadership solve France’s lack of leadership?

What is more, German leadership cannot make up for the lack of serious discussion on the final goal of the European project, and what it will take to get there. That is not to say that a primus inter pares like Germany shouldn’t provide impetus on the central issues that the EU is facing—but other member states need to step up, too.

To sum up, the question of whether Germany is leading Europe should not divert attention away from the more serious problem of underperforming member states. Their lack of leadership is endangering the future of the whole EU.


Paweł ŚwiebodaPresident of demosEUROPA

In its own way, Germany is clearly driving the socioeconomic reinvention of Europe.

What Germany wants to achieve is a cultural shift that will transform the understanding of economic fundamentals on the continent. A lot of German thinking is based on the country’s own experience in turning its economy around in the last ten years. Berlin’s assumption is that, through a cloning process, it can recreate similar success stories elsewhere in the eurozone. Such an approach clearly inflicts more pain than would otherwise be the case and may not be in line with the logic of economic and monetary union.

The political implications of German strength remain unaddressed. Germany understimates its sense of isolation in Europe, which will prove costly, especially once the other eurozone countries stand on their own two feet. Rightly or wrongly, they will remember the crisis as an episode of German diktat. That means Germany has to find a way to exercise its reluctant leadership in a more inclusive fashion. The way Berlin has worked with Warsaw on a range of dossiers is the best illustration of that.

Finally, there is a yawning strategic gap as Europe withdraws from its position of influence on a range of foreign and security policy issues. Germany celebrates its “hands-off” approach and hugely understimates the risks to the democratic and liberal order from which it has so profoundly benefited in the last sixty years. However, the expectation that economic clout will miraculously transform into foreign policy activism is groundless.

Germany needs to be socialized into a more active foreign policy stance, but others in Europe—not least Britain, France, and Poland—have a huge role to play in making that happen.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

Germany is not leading Europe, but rather is engaged in damage control. Expectations that Berlin can do more than that are unrealistic. Germany wants to avoid a return to the old German Problem of being large enough to frighten its neighbors but not strong enough to be a hegemon.

Chancellor Merkel faces the same dilemma that confronted Otto von Bismarck—how to be assertive without creating adversaries—but in a much more tightly integrated Europe. In addition to the limits of external power, Merkel faces the limits of her own political system, which was designed to make strong leadership difficult to achieve and which puts a premium on coalitions and consensus.

Germans remember that only a decade ago they were considered the “sick man of Europe” and understand how quickly a country can regress from powerhouse to struggling economy. Germany today has achieved what it has striven for since the end of World War II: that ambiguous state of “normalcy.”

However, normalcy in Europe today means parochialism and looking out for national interests without much sense of a broader European vision or commitment. That may or may not be bad news for Europe, but it will mean reconceptualizing the notion of European leadership. The continent will have to depend less on hegemons and great powers and look more toward a multilayered, postnational approach for a new Europe.


Sylke TempelEditor in chief of Internationale Politik at the German Council on Foreign Relations

There are two ways to interpret this question. First: Can the EU really—that is, visibly and willingly—be led by one nation? No. The EU is system is based on consensus and the principle of “leading from behind.” There is, however, some wiggle room, which leads to the second interpretation: Is Germany ready and willing to lead? The short answer to that is: yes, up to a certain extent.

Multilateralism—or, more generally, engaging in consensus-based foreign policy—might benignly hide some of Germany’s interests. At the same time, being part of a geopolitical framework such as the EU, NATO, or the transatlantic partnership is one of Germany’s core interests. “Not going it alone” is a concept deeply wired into Germany’s foreign policy mentality. In that context, leadership is not necessarily based on setting an example and expecting the others to follow. Rather, it is about political creativity, which is badly needed for the renovation of the EU’s institutional architecture. That means keeping the UK on board, dealing with Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine, and getting growth back on track, to name just a few key issues.

Leadership also requires the stamina to face even the most ferocious criticism. No doubt, Germany’s leadership has improved in this respect. (Reactions to Merkel portrayed as Hitler were pretty relaxed.) Thanks to an emerging foreign policy community, German leadership may be making gains in the field of political creativity, too. But it’s not enough yet.