German leadership has become the Holy Grail of European politics. There is not a single policy debate on EU affairs—be it about the euro, political union, a possible British exit from the EU, trade, or foreign policy—that does not end up being a discussion of what Berlin wants, should want, can do, and can’t do. All solutions (and all problems, for that matter) seem to stem from German leadership—or a lack thereof.

But what is the right kind of German leadership in and for Europe?

Successful German leadership in Europe has traditionally rested on three pillars. Let’s call them the Kohlian trinity, after former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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The first pillar was a rock-solid idea of what the European Union should be. Almost all members of the German political elite subscribed to the same vision of Europe: if in doubt, favor integration. This did not necessarily mean embracing the EU’s founding principle of “ever closer union,” but it was essentially a feeling that more Europe was a good idea.

This notion was not a lofty, postmodern, federalist pipe dream. It was very sensible politics that served German interests and the country’s domestic zeitgeist well. It was also about a clear Ordnungsmodell: a rules-based system of conflict resolution that would make all EU members more affluent and more secure in return for partly surrendering national sovereignty.

The second pillar of German leadership was the willingness of all postwar German governments to give in just a little bit earlier and pay just a little bit more than other countries to forge compromise. Germany became a modern-day honest broker and reserve power of European affairs.

Being willing to give more than others to hold the EU together and to deepen integration was strongly in Germany’s national interest. The country had most to gain from a functioning Europe. Not only did a well-oiled EU make the Germans immensely rich and turn former enemies into friends; it also enabled Germans to live at peace with themselves, a motivation that was (and still is) hugely underestimated by others when they assess German foreign policy.

The third pillar of the Kohlian trinity was a painstaking effort to attend to the fears, worries, and concerns of Germany’s neighbors. Kohl’s mastery came from the fact that he wasn’t only interested in the big players like France, Britain, or Italy. That went without saying.

He was also particularly concerned about the smaller countries. He put an enormous effort into cultivating trusted relationships with the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, and also, crucially, with Spain. Kohl knew that these states all had barely concealed nightmares about German size and dominance, and about their dependence on Germany’s economy. So he made a point of visiting them disproportionately often and being their advocate, whenever possible, inside the EU.

Germany’s extraordinary investment in these smaller players (a feat that consecutive French governments were unable to pull off) served a dual purpose. The move created the trust that Germany’s neighbors needed and that the Germans themselves required to come to terms with their place in Europe. And the effort was eminently smart power politics in terms of organizing majorities in the EU institutions.

Today, Germany’s dilemma is twofold. First, the three Kohlian pillars of leadership are still required, but they are only partly intact at best. Second, even if they were fully functioning, they would no longer be sufficient.

#Germany needs to redevelop a clear idea of where it wants Europe to go.
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Europe now is structurally different from in Kohl’s day. Germany, at least for the time being, is towering over Europe as it has never done in the postwar era. The EU itself is much larger and much more difficult to run. And foreign policy—including security questions, once a marginal aspect of EU politics—has grown to be a primary concern.

There is no doubt that Germany needs to lead more in Europe. To do so, it needs to reembrace the wisdom of the three pillars. Berlin needs to redevelop a clear idea of where it wants Europe to go, and it needs to start building alliances for that objective. Granted, this is more difficult today, as the “pro-integration by default” model won’t do any longer. And yet, Germany must lead because if the biggest EU member state does not speak out, it creates an intellectual vacuum that populists are only too eager to fill.

The EU is in dire need of reform, and is waiting for Germany to come out of the woodwork. Currently, Germany has a clear stance only on the euro, and even that plan is shaky. The occasional forays by Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble into a twenty-first-century integration debate are not enough.

Berlin also needs to reembrace its old diplomatic and fiscal generosity. That sounds ludicrous at a time when German Euroskeptic populists score electoral successes and lackluster reform in Europe’s South makes German solidarity a hard sell to home audiences. But the overall logic of Germany as Europe’s servant leader still applies. The investment will still pay off, and it is the key to making both economic and political integration work.

#Germany needs to become more sensitive again to the worries of its neighbors.
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Germany needs to become more sensitive again to the worries of its neighbors. As in the past, this includes the smaller countries; but now, it specifically includes Britain too. Some of Germany’s neighbors are splendid allies with similar ideas on economic governance and institutional reform. These countries are often needed, but they sometimes feel neglected and sidelined. Merely cultivating the flanks—France and Poland—crucial as that is, is not enough.

Finally, Germany needs to add an extra ingredient to its leadership mix. Berlin needs to become a firm, wise leader on foreign policy. This was once the French and British domain, but the EU can no longer rely on these two players alone. In the Ukraine crisis, just as in the Western Balkans, Germany has demonstrated that it can lead. More of that approach is needed.

Part of Germany’s foreign policy leadership should be a less complex-ridden posture on hard security issues. It is still often misunderstood in Berlin how much of a hindrance Germany’s perceived unreliability in military affairs is for its proper role in Europe.

As former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski has said, Germany is Europe’s indispensable nation. German leadership cultures should take inspiration from an old, successful model, but Berlin also needs to add new elements. Coming up with the right leadership for Europe will not be easy. But it is crucial if the continent is to succeed in the decades ahead.