In a previous post I mentioned the binary thinking that characterises much of the current debate about “populism”. Perhaps the best example of that binary thinking is the idea that there is a new fault line in politics between “open” and “closed” that is more important than, or has even replaced, the fault line between left and right. This argument is generally made by centrists like Tony Blair (e.g. here) and Emmanuel Macron, who successfully used the idea in the presidential campaign in 2017. There is clearly something to the idea that there is a new fault line that cuts across the divide between left and right, but thinking of it in terms of “open” and “closed” is problematic in all kinds of ways. In particular, it seems to me to be misleading and simplistic to identify the European Union with the idea of “openness”.
Much of the discussion about the causes of “populism” that is currently taking place seems to me to be hopelessly binary. The term is now used to describe an extraordinarily diverse array of figures, movements and parties (and even, in the case of Brexit, outcomes) in different geographical locations. The causes clearly differ in each case – even within Europe. But even many of those who recognize this seem to think it is possible to make the claim that, in a specific case, populism can be explained by either “economic” or “cultural” factors rather than a complex interaction between the two. A good example is Timothy Garton Ash’s essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, in which he claims that the success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is caused by culture rather than “economic factors”. It seems to me the reality is much more complex.
There has been much discussion of the role of ordoliberalism in Germany’s approach to the euro crisis (see for example this paper by two former colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations and this paper by my former Transatlantic Academy colleague Wade Jacoby). But of course the story of how German ideas have influenced the European Union does not begin with the Greek crisis in 2010. It is well known that the European Central Bank (ECB) reflects the values of the Bundesbank. (Actually, it doubles down on them – the ECB is even more independent, and has an even tighter focus on price stability, than the Bundesbank – see this explainer.) Less well known, though, is the way German ideas on competition policy that go back to ordoliberalism have shaped European integration since its beginnings in the 1950s. You might almost say that competition policy is the missing link between histories of ordoliberalism and the EU.
There seems to be a lot of discussion about rules these days. In particular, among foreign policy analysts, rules come up both in discussions about the liberal international order and in discussions about the eurozone. But it is striking to me how disconnected the two discussions are – and how differently rules are seen in each case. In discussions about the liberal international order, rules are widely seen as a good thing because they are thought of as an alternative to relations between states based simply on power. But in discussions about the eurozone, rules are seen by many as being much more problematic. In particular, critics of the German view, which emphasises rules over discretion (see Brunnermeier, James and Landau on this), see them as essentially post-democratic. So are rules a good or bad thing?
I can still remember how, in a late-night discussion at the Brussels Forum in March 2013, Estonian President Toomas Ilves urged the audience to read an article entitled “Why Poland is the new France for Germany” that had been published a few months earlier by my former ECFR colleagues Ulrike Guérot and Konstanty Gebert. The Civic Platform government of Donald Tusk – which the article said was “committed to joining the Euro around 2016” – had put behind it the fraught relationship that had existed between the two countries while Jarosław Kaczyński was prime minister between 2006 and 2007. As a result, the article suggested, some in Germany – which, in the context of the euro crisis, was increasingly frustrated with France’s perceived failure to reform its economy – increasingly saw Poland as its closest and most important partner in the European Union.
Since my book, The Paradox of German Power, came out, I’ve had some interesting discussions about the implicit assumptions about the nature of international relations in Europe on which it is based. In particular, especially in Germany, some have questioned whether the concepts I use make sense in the context of the European Union. The EU, they argue, has transformed international politics into domestic politics. So does it make sense to use concepts like hegemony in this context? Thus discussion of the “German question” – a phrase that implies continuity with pre-World War II Europe – inevitably raises broader questions about how to understand the way in which international politics in Europe has changed. How exactly has European integration transformed relations between European states?
Over the last few weeks, as Greece has edged closer to leaving the European single currency, there has been much speculation about the different positions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Schäuble, who is generally thought to be more “pro-European” than Merkel but has paradoxically taken a tougher line towards Greece, is usually said to believe the single currency can only succeed if everyone abides by the rules. Merkel, on the hand, is said to worry about more the geopolitical costs of “Grexit”, particularly in the context of Russian revisionism since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Others speculate that the difference between the positions of Merkel and Schäuble is merely tactical: a good cop/bad cop routine in order to extract concessions from Greece.