This article analyses the major lines of argument in the German election campaign in connection with the process of European integration. Germany’s election campaign has now entered the crucial phase, with polls indicating that a tight race between government and opposition can be expected. In Germany there is broad support among all major parties for European integration in general, and for the actual reform process of the EU. Furthermore, regarding enlargement, both the government and the opposition underline that the German contribution to the EU budget must be limited in the future. The Christian democrats, however, accuse the government of having neglected Franco-German relations and of allowing Germany to lose influence in Europe. Divergences also exist in specific policy fields like security and defence, and heated discussion has been triggered by the chancellor’s comments about a ‘German way’ in foreign policy. However, the key issue in the campaign concerns the economic situation; the major criticism voiced by the opposition against the ruling coalition is that Germany has become the sick man of Europe in economic terms, with one of the lowest rates of economic growth and high unemployment. Strengthening the country as Europe’s leading economic power is the objective of all major parties, while the discussion about the best method for achieving this goal takes place under a dominantly national perspective.
Major Lines of the German EU Debate: Fundamental Consensus and Points of Disagreement
Germany’s election campaign has entered the final and decisive stage. What makes it much more exciting compared to previous years is the fact that the race is still open and could end up with an extremely close result. Recent polls indicate that the parties in government have gained ground, which could threaten the long-predicted victory of the opposition.
In general, the actual reform discussion about the future of the EU (in the framework of the Convention) is not a prominent element in the electoral campaign. The EU is neither a major nor a controversial issue in this context. However, although the EU as such is not a subject of major controversy in German political life, there is a clear European dimension in the whole electoral debate. The major opposition parties - the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU) as well as the Liberals (FDP) - basically share the same European vocation as the governing coalition composed of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. European integration is identified with the promotion of peace and economic prosperity, and Germany is regarded as a country deeply rooted in the European Union. There is no fundamental objection to European integration among the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag, including the post-communist PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), and the need to reform the Union is recognised by all major political forces. The democratisation of the EU, its legitimacy and accountability represent key issues in this context.
All major parties in Germany advocate a European constitution and the inclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in such a document. The strengthening of the European Parliament, further resort to majority voting in the Council and a clearer division of competencies belong to the common denominator of the political debate in the Federal Republic. While the parties of the left (SPD and PDS) basically stress the need for a social dimension to the integration process and a ‘European’ economic model, the center-right parties (CDU/CSU and FDP) tend to emphasize the challenges of globalisation for which the EU (and Germany) should be better prepared in the future. The Greens additionally – as well as traditionally - underline the importance of ecological concerns in the European arena.
One major point of controversy in the EU debate among the political parties concerns security and defence. The post-communist PDS rejects the establishment of a military dimension of the Union in the context of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) and is also highly critical of NATO; indeed it was the only major political group in the country to oppose the German contribution to the international alliance against terrorism under the leadership of the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. These basic foreign policy positions are regarded as a key obstacle to an inclusion of the PDS in a future German government – a point which is regularly stressed, particularly by the SPD, when asked about possible coalition partners.
Opposition candidate Edmund Stoiber and the CDU/CSU criticise the government for having mismanaged European policy in recent years and for neglecting Franco-German relations. During a visit to Paris in mid-July 2002, Stoiber met President Chirac and seized the occasion for demanding new dynamics in what had once been the Franco-German axis, and some observers remarked that an unusually high degree of consensus and even sympathy appeared to exist between the two conservative politicians. While it is true that Franco-German relations did not have the same weight and importance under the red-green coalition compared to the times of Schmidt and Giscard or Kohl and Mitterrand, Stoiber faces a twofold challenge on this front: on the one hand, there are considerable points of divergence over European policy with regard to agriculture or the financing of the Union; in addition, it might prove difficult to make a future Franco-German tandem compatible with closer relations with the United States – which is Stoiber’s other key foreign policy objective.
Stoiber already enjoys good relations with a number of conservative heads of government like Spain’s José María Aznar or Austria’s Wolfgang Schuessel, who are not Schröder’s ‘favourite’ partners, and he also seems to be on better personal terms with Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi than the current Chancellor. Indeed a CDU/CSU victory could therefore mean a rebalancing of the EU’s political profile in a more conservative direction. After some years of centre-left governments in Paris, London and Berlin, the EU could shift to the centre-right. Whether or not a Franco-German tandem will emerge as a result remains to be seen, as this will depend on more than just similar party ideologies in the government.
Stoiber also envisages the creation of a European Ministry located in the Chancellor’s Office or standing as an independent institution, either of which would undoubtedly trigger resistance and opposition by the Foreign Office and other ministries. Nevertheless, this reflects a perceived need for increased coordination and even centralisation of Germany’s EU policy and could result in a stronger role for the Chancellor. However, observers doubt that Stoiber will be able to put his plans into practice given the coalition negotiations and the inter-ministerial disputes that would ensue.
Enlargement and Reform of EU policies
All major parties in Germany favour the enlargement of the EU, although a controversy had been set off by the Christian democrats in the case of the Czech Republic and Poland. During the campaign, Stoiber publicly demanded the annulment of the Benesh and Bierut decrees in these countries by which the German population had been expropriated and expelled shortly after the second World War. Although he tried to avoid the impression that annulment of the Benesch decrees should be regarded as a precondition to the EU-accession of the Czech Republic, his comments inevitably caused considerable irritation in Prague. This demand was formally rejected by the government, while for the Christian Democrats – and particularly for the Christian Social Union – the associations of expelled ethnic Germans from the former eastern territories which came under Czech or Polish rule after World War II are an important political and electoral factor. Relations with Prague became very strained after the Czech prime minister, Zeman, described the former German population – the sudetes – as traitors and fifth columnists of the Nazi aggressors.
As far as the economic implications of enlargement are concerned, Chancellor Schröder has initiated a debate about the future financial system of the EU, Germany’s role as a net contributor and direct payments in agriculture. This is highly reminiscent of the German position in the Agenda 2000 process after 1998. It is not to be expected that the federal government will soften its position before the general elections, one which has already caused severe tensions with France and other Southern countries such as Spain. The budgetary implications of enlargement can be expected to become increasingly contentious, since the opposition is also willing to fight for a reduction of the German contribution to the EU treasury.
Commissioner Franz Fischler’s plans for reforming agricultural policy announced in July 2002 have had a mixed reception in Germany; as far as the present government is concerned, these proposals are not radical enough in order to reduce costs, and more substantial innovations should be pursued. On the other hand, the limitation of future direct payments (up to 300.000 € per farm) is regarded as excessively strict, since it will have a negative impact in the Eastern German Länder, where there are much larger agricultural units than in the rest of Germany.
In essence, the opposition parties share very similar views. The CDU/CSU is also in favour of reducing the German financial contribution to the EU and in reforming agricultural and structural policy, for example, by adopting national co-financing models. Nevertheless, the CDU/CSU can be expected to be more hesitant in radically redressing agricultural policy as the farmers still belong to their traditional clientele.
A German way versus a European Way?
One controversy which has become prominent in recent weeks concerns the Federal Republic’s position in foreign and security policy, particularly after Chancellor Schröder and other members of the SPD stressed that they would under no circumstances support a US strike against Iraq – even if a UN mandate for such an action existed. This attitude, which was labelled a ‘German way’, soon came under heavy criticism from the Christian Democrats and Liberals, who preferred to speak of a ‘European way’ and hinted at the international consequences this might have. Schröder’s partner in the ruling coalition, Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, also rejected the notion of a ‘German way’ understood in these terms, but endorsed the Chancellor’s position regarding non-engagement in Iraq.
Given a UN mandate, Christian democratic and liberal foreign policy experts have stressed that Germany should fulfil its obligations arising from international commitments, but the problem for the opposition is that a vast majority of the electorate opposes military strikes against Iraq. This was seen as the reason why Stoiber subsequently decided to play down the issue and avoid any further comment by him or his campaign team which could indicate that they would engage German forces in a military operation of this nature, while stressing that, in any case, a decision on this issue was not imminent. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from accusing the government of not coordinating its foreign policy sufficiently with its major international partners, arguing that a ‘German way’ would foster misunderstanding and mistrust in the European and Atlantic communities.
In the wake of this controversy, Schröder himself felt the need to rectify some of the misunderstandings and the growing uneasiness resulting from the notion of a ‘German way’, explaining that this would mean neither a separate nor an anti-European way. The Chancellor has also sought to shift the public’s attention away from foreign policy to key features of the economic and social structure of the country –as if to suggest that the German way is the foreign policy equivalent of the German model.
Europe as a point of reference in the German election campaign
The central issue in Germany’s election campaign is indeed the economic situation of the country, and particularly the rate of unemployment. With more than four million jobless, the government has obviously failed to attain its self-declared objective of reducing this figure to at least three and a half million. The opposition parties are exploiting this weakness by underlining the competence of Schröder’s rival, Edmund Stoiber (CSU), who as minister president of Bavaria governs the economically most successful state of the federal republic.
The debate about the economic situation in Germany nevertheless has an underlying European dimension. The rate of economic growth, the competitiveness of German industry and the quality of education and training have been intensely debated in a comparative perspective over the last few years; a major criticism brought forth by the opposition against the ruling coalition is that Germany has become the sick man of Europe in economic terms, with one of the lowest rates of GNP growth and a poor performance as regards the creation of new jobs. While the government points to the global economic downturn in explaining the current economic difficulties, the Christian democrats and liberals tend to look at other countries in the EU which have performed much better if measured by their key economic indicators. There is thus a major political and public discussion about the economic malaise affecting the country’s international ranking. This sick man debate is a negative counterpart to the German model which had been discussed in former decades as a symbol for economic growth, social stability and political consensus.
In early 2002, the results of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study which placed German pupils at the lower end of the European and international scale in terms of basic knowledge and skills, particularly in the fields of mathematics and the natural sciences, added fuel to the debate. Although responsibility for education policy lies with the states, the federal government insisted on better national standards for education. Furthermore, when more detailed results revealed that the CDU/CSU-governed states of Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg had performed better than the SPD-governed states, a virulent row between government and opposition erupted. Again, the public perception was that Germany had lost ground in major fields where the country had once been seen as an international model of success.
In this regard, the EU serves as a reference point for benchmarking and thus defining Germany’s standing, even though the debate does not explicitly refer to EU employment or economic policy. Making Germany the leading EU power in key economic fields is an ambition shared by all major political groups, and it is safe to assume that the elections will be decided on this question. Indeed the polls indicate that unemployment and the general economic situation still are and will remain the crucial issue until election day.
Dr. Udo Diedrichs
University of Cologne