At a discussion I had with Stephen Green and Quentin Peel at Chatham House recently, a member of the audience put it to me that German policy in Europe was normal for a creditor country in a debt crisis. In particular, he suggested that it was playing in a similar role in the euro crisis as the United States did in the Latin American debt crisis in the 1980s. “The thinking in Berlin is no different from the thinking in Washington during the Latin American debt crisis”, he said. It was an interesting point, which prompted me to think more about the similarities and differences between the two crises and between the role of Germany in Europe and creditor countries in other debt crises. It is also relevant to the question of the relationship between ordoliberalism and neo-liberalism, which I discussed in my previous post.
One of the things that has persistently puzzled me over the last few years is the disconnect between the Anglo-Saxon and German debates about the euro crisis. The mainstream view among Anglo-Saxon economists is broadly Keynesian: they see surpluses as a problem as well as deficits and therefore argue it is not only debtor countries that need to adjust. But the only German economists you hear making such arguments are those such as Heiner Flassbeck who are perceived as being on the far left. (Flassbeck was the state secretary in the German finance ministry during the short-lived tenure of Oskar Lafontaine at the beginning of the Schröder government. Lafontaine subsequently left the German Social Democrat party and became one of the leaders of the Linke, or Left party.) It seems as if, in this respect, Germans are to the right of the Anglo-Saxons.
This summer in Berlin, I finally got around to reading Christian Kracht’s “pop” novel Faserland, which was originally published in 1995 – nearly 20 years ago. The novel – Kracht’s first – has been compared to Brett Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero. In some ways world that the unnamed narrator describes – one of rich kids obsessed with designer labels who lead empty lives – is one that could be in LA or almost anywhere. But Faserland is also apparently an attempt to say something specific about Germany. The title, which literally means “threadland”, is obviously a play on “Vaterland”, or fatherland. In the novel, the narrator travels, apparently aimlessly, from one end of Germany to the other – from Sylt in the north to Bodensee in the far south (and then, in the final chapter, to Switzerland). He frequently comments on Germany and the Germans. So what, if anything, does Faserland tell us about Germany?
In an essay I wrote in 2011, I argued that Germany should no longer be thought of as a “civilian power” but rather as a “geo-economic power”. I argued that the weakening of the Federal Republic’s commitment to multilateralism during the previous decade and its increasing economic assertiveness, particularly within the eurozone, undermined its claim to be a “civilian power” – that is, one that used multilateral institutions and economic co-operation rather than military power to achieve its foreign policy goals. The concept of “civilian power” was originally used by François Duchêne to describe the European Union and was applied to the Federal Republic by Hanns W. Maull, who, in one of his first essays on the subject in the early 1990s, described Germany and Japan as “new civilian powers” – “prototypes” of “a new type of international power”. So if Germany is no longer a “civilian power”, what about Japan?
Is the European Union a utopian project? Right-wing Eurosceptics often see it as one. In her book Statecraft (2002), for example, Margaret Thatcher called the EU a “classic Utopian project, a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure.” More recently, left-wing Eurosceptics such as Wolfgang Streeck have begun to describe the EU as a different kind of utopian project. In an influential book published in Germany last year (to be published in English in May as Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism), Streeck argues that the EU is evolving into (or perhaps revealing itself as) a kind of Hayekian utopian project – a vehicle for endless liberalisation without interference from democratic politics. But is this the right way to think of the EU? Does it really seek to make Utopia a reality?
As Europe commemorates the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I this year, a re-assessment is taking place in Germany of what is called Europe’s Urkatastrophe, or “original catastrophe” – in other words, the one that led to all the others. In particular, influenced by books such as Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers (published in Germany in 2013) and Herfried Münkler’s Der große Krieg (also 2013) – both best sellers in Germany – many are rejecting the once widely held idea that the war was caused above all by German aggression. A poll in January showed that only 19 percent of Germans thought Germany was chiefly responsible for the outbreak of war. It seems to me that this is part of a broader trend in collective memory and national identity in Germany since around the Millennium that I have written about previously: Germans now think of themselves less as “perpetrators” and more as “victims”.
Europeans, particularly “pro-European” Europeans like me, often make the argument that it is only by pooling their collective resources that can they compete in the emerging world of continent-sized powers such as China, India and the US. By jointly pursuing their interests, the 28 member states of the European Union – the world’s largest trading bloc – can have greater impact than any of them can have individually. In particular, this argument is often deployed to show why it would be a mistake for the UK to leave the EU: to do so would commit it to “geopolitical oblivion”, as a French official put it to me. The idea, in short, is that size matters, as Peter Mandelson put it at a dinner I attended a year or so ago. But interestingly (and perhaps slightly worryingly), this discourse about size echoes the one in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.