Opinion - Politics

These four challenges threaten Germany's role as defacto EU leader

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Key Points
  • This past weekend's Munich Security Conference (MSC) focused on great power competition, China's relentless rise and the West's assumed division and decline (captured by the MSC's provocative theme of "Westlessness").
  • What was missing was an urgently required focus on the quadruple shock challenging Germany's role as Europe's pillar of stability and irreplaceable leader.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Thomas Lohnes

MUNICH— Is it time to start worrying about Germany again?

This past weekend's Munich Security Conference (MSC) – the most significant gathering of its kind – focused on great power competition, China's relentless rise and the West's assumed division and decline (captured by the MSC's provocative theme of "Westlessness").

What was most missing, in this Bavarian city dripping with history, was an urgently required focus on the quadruple shock challenging Germany's role as Europe's pillar of stability and irreplaceable leader.

Those four challenges – listed here in no order of importance – are Brexit's hit to the European balance, President Trump's transatlantic test, Germany's political fragmentation, and its slowing, endangered economy.

Each of those four forces tears at the fabric of the political and economic certainties that have defined post-Cold War Europe and Germany, coming in the thirtieth anniversary year of the country's reunification.

They also raise what has been known historically as "the German Question" for a new era. In short, the German Question pertains to the problem of a Germany that has either been too weak (17th and 18th centuries) or too strong (late 19th and first half of 20th century), to live easily beside other European powers.

With the country's unification in 1871, a nation was born at Europe's heart that ultimately became too powerful to be balanced by its neighbors. Only after two world wars and the rise of European and transatlantic institutions, was this dilemma settled for a time.

Following its 1990 reunification, today's Germany remains too weak to effectively lead Europe (militarily and geopolitically) and too strong (economically) to be an equal partner with the other 27 EU members. It has grown too inwardly focused to shoulder European responsibility in the face of great power competition among the U.S., Russia, and China.

A brief look at the quadruple shocks Germany confronts is a useful prism to study the problem. It also makes clear how high the stakes are for its partners, European and American, in the German future.

Brexit and Germany

"Without the UK, Germany is pushed into an EU role it hates," writes Andreas Kluth in Bloomberg. "It loses a liberal soulmate, a counterweight to France, above all a counterweight to itself."

Little attention has been given to one of the most significant questions of Brexit, and that is how it could influence Germany and upset the European balance. The United Kingdom's departure makes Germany stronger and weaker simultaneously.

It is much stronger economically, and thus it will be more tempted to exert its leverage, as its share of total European Union GDP will grow to 25% from 21%. It will be weaker in that the political weight of the continent will move south and east to countries that are more "dirigiste" in their belief in state intervention. On these issues, the UK was Germany's crucial ally.

Trump and Germany

The most disturbing moment of MSC for me, an American son of German immigrants, was the indirect rhetorical conflict between German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Without mentioning names, President Steinmeier used his largely ceremonial position to take a swipe at President Trump for disregarding alliances, which was answered a little later by Secretary Pompeo's riposte that such thinking "doesn't reflect reality."

Lost in Munich was sufficient recognition that the two countries were bound both by history and the future. Three U.S. cabinet secretaries and 41 members of Congress were in Munich over the weekend, yet even that couldn't reignite the flame of common cause.

"The democratic and peace-loving Germany everyone knows and loves today grew up in the particular circumstances of the U.S.-dominated international liberal order established after World War II," writes the historian Robert Kagan in Foreign Affairs.

Four elements had been crucial to that outcome, all of which are now in some degree of doubt.

They included unquestioned U.S. commitment to European security; the emergence of a European and international economic system of free trade; a Europe where democracies were ascendant and nationalism was in check; and the establishment of European and transatlantic institutions that integrated Germany and provided a collective identity.

German political fragmentation

The erosion of the German political middle has always been perilous, dating back to the Weimar Republic in 1918-1933.

With both the country's leading political parties eroding, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, Germany's political landscape is in growing question.

This week provided a reminder that Chancellor Angela Merkel's record four terms and 14 years is nearing a close without any clear idea of what follows. Her hand-picked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (known as AKK), announced on Monday she would step aside following a scandal in the federal state of Thuringia that involved her local party officials turning to the far-right Alternative for Germany party to elect a state premier.

What's likely to follow are many months of German political uncertainty and inward-looking at a time when this year's U.S. elections, Russia's continued regional meddling, and a forthcoming EU-Chinese summit in Leipzig this September all require Berlin's leadership.

European populism and nationalism have been more muted in Germany than elsewhere, but the increased weakness of the center could further feed the fringe.

The German economy

German worries are growing about a 2020 recession, driven both by trade tensions and the backlash from coronavirus. Economic results for last year's fourth quarter came in at zero growth this week, and the first quarter of this year is likely to be worse.

Longer term, German analysts worry that German industry isn't adopting new technologies quickly enough – from electric and autonomous cars to artificial intelligence and 5G telecommunications – to sustain their export-driven, manufacturing industries.

It's easy to understand why Germans defend the status quo, which has served them well over the past few decades. What's unclear is how Germany will react with so many certainties shaken: the shape of the EU, relations with the U.S., the stability of German politics, and the durability of economic growth.

With all the world's focus on a rising China and an aggressive Russia, it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of Germany's crucial role at the heart of an uncertain Europe.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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