Germany, the east and the south (2)

In my book, The Paradox of German Power, I argued that, since the euro crisis began in 2010, EU member states seemed to have adopted a mixture of bandwagoning and balancing in relation to Germany. In particular, I suggested that the countries of central Europe, whose economies had been integrated with Germany’s since reunification, seemed to be forming “a kind of geo-economic equivalent of a German sphere of influence”. Meanwhile, the eurozone “periphery” seemed to be under pressure to form what George Soros called a “common front” against Germany. In short, the east was bandwagoning and the south balancing. However, since then, I’ve started to wonder whether perhaps I underestimated the complexity and fluidity of coalition building within the European Union. Instead of two blocs within Europe, there seems to be an even more complex and fluid dynamic of shifting coalitions.

In particular, two developments in the last few years have made me rethink. First, it is now clear that EU member states are not only driven by their economic interests. In particular, the refugee crisis has illustrated how powerful issues of identity can be in driving the way EU member states define their national interests. It is striking that it has been central European countries like Hungary and Slovakia – whose economies are more deeply integrated into Germany’s than any other in Europe – that have been most critical of Germany’s approach to the crisis. Second, countries like Poland no longer even seem to think their economic interests are automatically aligned with Germany’s. A few years ago, officials from countries like Poland said that what was good for Germany was good for them. But, even before the refugee crisis, there was an increasing sense of dissatisfaction in Poland with its integration into the German economy.

That sense of dissatisfaction has been expressed by the new Law and Justice Party (PiS) government, which is taking a very different approach to Germany than its Civic Platform predecessor, as I discussed in my last post. At a recent discussion in Berlin, my former colleague Piotr Buras explained that, behind the anti-German rhetoric of the new government is a sense of dissatisfaction with Poland’s subordinate role in the German manufacturing supply chain. As Piotr wrote in a prescient brief in 2014, the successful post-Cold War transformation of the country’s economy was based largely on supplying skilled but cheap labour for German industry. Poland thus benefited from Germany’s export boom in the last decade. But, Piotr wrote, “what was an asset in the last decade will most probably become a liability in the years to come”. In short, Poland needs a new economic model.

Even more strikingly, Piotr suggested that the new government believes it needs to join forces with other central and eastern European countries in order to form a counterweight to German power – in other words, that Poland, of all countries, is seeking to balance against Germany. Whereas the Civic Platform government sought to make Poland one of the six leading countries in the EU – hence the idea of Poland as the “new France” for Germany – the PiS government seems to aspire to lead a coalition of the seven post-Communist member states that joined the EU in 2004 (President Andrzej Duda’s first foreign visit was to Tallinn). Of course, this is not to say that such a coalition is viable – like the countries of the south, the countries of the east do not necessarily share the same interests and also face collective action problems that are exacerbated by their economic dependence on Germany.

I still think, as I argued in the book, that the consequence of Germany’s position in Europe – which I see as one of “semi-hegemony” rather than “hegemony” – may be a kind of geo-economic equivalent of the kinds of conflicts that Europe struggled with between 1871 and 1945 and in particular the competitive dynamic of coalition building centered on Germany. But it now seems to me that the dynamic is even more complex and fluid than I thought. Instead of two blocs within Europe – the surplus and deficit countries – coalitions seem to shift depending on the issues. So far the south has opposed Germany on economic policy and the east has opposed Germany on refugee policy. But I now even wonder whether, given the parallels and links in the eastern and southern critiques of Germany that I discussed in my previous post, the east and south could even at some point join forces and form a “coalition of the peripheries”.

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