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China Daily Global / 2019-12 / 23 / Page013

A changing Germany can still stabilize the EU

By ZHENG CHUNRONG | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-12-23 00:00

Public anxiety in Germany is growing, but blaming China is no panacea

Over the past few years, Germany has undergone many changes. Its leading role in the European Union has declined. From being a core player in helping Europe overcome its debt crisis, it has gone to being unable to solve the refugee crisis. Then it experienced the longest cabinet formation in its history. German Chancellor Angela Merkel secured a fourth term of office, but she no longer chairs the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich-Demokratische Union, CDU) and announced that she would not seek re-election in 2021. Beset by various challenges emanating from domestic political forces, her authority in the EU and the international community has gradually diminished. What concerns observers most, however, is that still few politicians in Germany's major political parties can match her authority.

Germany, which under Merkel was a rock of political stability in the EU, now gives rise to uncertainty. For historical reasons, it used to be immune to the appeal of right-wing populist parties. But with the ascent of the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), the country now has its fair share of right-wing populism just like other European countries. The decline of the traditional mainstream parties, coupled with a fragmentation of the political landscape, will be the new normal in German politics for a long time to come.

Given the global economic uncertainties, Germany's economic growth has also slowed. According to the Federal Statistics Office, German GDP growth was negative in the second quarter of 2019, contracting by 0.2 percent, before rebounding slightly by 0.1 percent in the third quarter. With a decline in exports and a slump in manufacturing, Germany's economic outlook looks gloomy, sounding a warning bell for its government.

Public anxiety in Germany is also on the rise. The gap between the rich and the poor has been widening in recent years. People in eastern Germany in particular have little sense of fulfillment or happiness. They voted in favor of the AfD to show their disapproval of the government. That is why the present government has made "forming a new unity" one of its priorities. However, judging from the AfD's continuous gains in eastern Germany, mainstream parties have so far failed to win back support in this region.

Political instability, the economic slowdown and an unhelpful public opinion are rendering Germany ever more introspective. Disputes within the government have become more frequent and government decisions are increasingly influenced by public opinion; in consequence, Germany's input into the EU and international affairs is diminishing. The political elite in Germany may well desire greater global responsibility, but this aim becomes ever more elusive.

Yet it would be wrong to conclude that Germany is becoming irrelevant. First, Germany remains a politically stable country and the strongest economy in the EU. The German political scientist Wolfgang Merkel once predicted that over the next decade the large mainstream parties would disappear and even the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) would have to make do with about 10 percent of the vote. This would not render Germany ungovernable, but rather require all mainstream political parties to establish a new pattern of cooperation. Second, after the German reunification in 1990, its economy was long mired in a recession with high unemployment and a loss of international competitiveness, so much so that it was even dubbed the "sick man of Europe". However, this sick man re-emerged as a leading player in the EU after the painful "Agenda 2010" reforms, attesting to Germany's resilience and strength. Therefore it is reasonable to expect that despite temporary setbacks Germany will recover once the global economy improves.

Herfried Münkler, another German political scientist, once said that if Germany fails to assume the role of "central power of Europe" European integration will fail. To this end, he added, Germany must abstain from populism at home, and its public should have more faith in the EU than people in the countries on Europe's periphery. Today, despite changed circumstances and the rise of right-wing populism, Germany still remains the central power of Europe.

France under President Emmanuel Macron has gained momentum, but Macron is shifting the focus to the EU reforms also in order to deflect attention from pressing domestic issues. France still needs the support and cooperation of Germany if it wants to assume leadership in the EU. From a different perspective, now that Germany's influence in the EU is declining, the relationship between France and Germany is becoming more symmetrical, in a way that will allow both to serve as stabilizers of a crisis-ridden Europe.

Meanwhile, Germany has consistently taken the helm in developing ties between the EU and China; for a very long period it has indeed pioneered these relations. The strong ties that have been forged between Germany and China have not only benefited the two countries, but also demonstrated to Europe and the world the value of close cooperation with China.

The above-mentioned changes in national conditions have however created challenges for the relations between China and Germany. Some political elements in Germany have been pandering to populist sentiment by depicting high-tech competition between the two countries out of proportion and exaggerating the differences between their political systems. But souring relations with China will not restore the German people's sense of fulfillment, and their interests would only be damaged were cooperation to decline.

The political elite in Germany should therefore stay calm, stand firm, and reach a consensus on reform. Germany should strive to work with France to jointly promote the development of Europe, achieve the government's goal of "revitalizing Europe, gaining new momentum and forming a new unity", and continue to promote the Sino-European relationship in the new era.

The author is director of the German Studies Center at Tongji University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.






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