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Can Germany Reconcile the Western Balkans?

This post was first published by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Johns Hopkins University, where Jelena was the Harry and Helen Gray Reconciliation Fellow, August – September 2014.

In April 2013, Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement that enabled a rapprochement between the two sides, including an understanding that they will not block each other’s bid for European Union (EU) membership. Relations between the two states had been deadlocked for years, so this was not an insignificant achievement. The agreement was mediated by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, and was largely seen as a success of EU diplomacy. However, a surprising number of observers suggests that the realization of the agreement is largely due to German involvement: in 2011, Angela Merkel “read the riot act” to then Serbian president Boris Tadic, warning that Serbia would jeopardize its EU membership prospects unless relations with Kosovo were normalized. Serbia had been dragging its feet on the Kosovo issue for years and, despite EU pressure, the situation seemed impassable as no Serbian government wanted to be seen as the one that capitulated on Kosovo.

Why was Merkel’s intervention so successful in spurring the agreement that paves the way for a Serbia-Kosovo reconciliation? This article suggests that Merkel’s effectiveness is largely due to Germany’s growing importance for the region, both as a key partner for the Western Balkan states and as a driver of EU integration.  Reconciliation in this analysis is understood in its broadest sense—as a normalization of relations between states and societies, in a way that would enable them to operate basic diplomatic, political, and social exchanges. This functional view of reconciliation does not focus on a moral dimension. Such a focus is chosen mainly as a result of German involvement in the Balkans: it is most visible at the state level, where Germany has played a key role in bringing together Western Balkan states, and urging regional cooperation which will eventually result in EU integration.

Germany and the Balkans

 

Since the 1990s, Germany has been the most active international actor committed to pursuing political solutions for the stabilization of the Western Balkans. The 1991-1999 conflicts in the former Yugoslavia left strongly felt legacies and serious challenges at all levels: those responsible had to be prosecuted for war crimes, while societies had to deal with reintegrating victims, refugees, former prisoners, and veterans. The region had to undergo a “double transition,” from war to peace, as well as from socialism to democracy and a free market economy. Former Yugoslav states, spurred on by the framework of European integration, had to (re)learn how to cooperate at the most basic level and reach agreements on issues such as border disputes and trade agreements; and to operate new, post-war states through power-sharing mechanisms. Throughout this recent history, comparisons were often drawn between Germany and the former Yugoslavia, with Germany often held up as a model for reconciliation and reconstruction. However, not only are these comparisons misleading, but they also obscure the real intersections of German involvement and post-conflict Western Balkan reconstruction and reconciliation.

Postwar Germany and the former Yugoslavia were closely linked: not only did Germany receive large numbers of Gastarbeiter workers from the former Yugoslavia, but its former leader, Josip Broz Tito, cultivated strong ties to Germany as a part of his foreign policy. The cultivation of strong bilateral relations with Germany continued in foreign policies of almost all Yugoslav successor states, especially Croatia and Serbia under Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (but not, notably, under Slobodan Milosevic).  German involvement in the region reached a critical juncture with Germany’s 1992 recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, a decision that caused rifts between its international partners, but one which was made in the spirit of conflict resolution. Germany’s view was that Croatia and Slovenia ought to be recognized: the rationale was reinforced by the post-reunification mood, where Germany felt unable to deny others’ bid for self-determination. This same rationale underscored Germany’s support for Kosovo independence later in the 1990s, but was additionally reinforced by the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s persecution campaign against Kosovo Albanians.

Since then, Germany has been involved in all major decisions and processes designed to calm the former Yugoslav conflict zones. Many such initiatives were envisaged as mechanisms of reconciliation, even if this did not always turn out to be the case in practice, for example, in the case of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia, but is generally thought of as a political failure since it reinforced the ethnic divisions at elite levels. Germany was a member of the Contact Group (also including the U.S., UK, France, Italy, and Russia), which monitored the conflicts in Yugoslavia, and in 1999 took part in the NATO campaign against Serbia and Milosevic in Kosovo.

External Actors and Reconciliation

Germany has been one of a number of international actors helping the Yugoslav successor states end the conflicts and subsequently rebuild and reconcile. This is not unusual: almost all contemporary conflicts involve a degree of international or external involvement, whether through peacekeeping, or subsequent peacebuilding. External involvement has often been crucial in various conflicts, particularly those in the Western Balkans, in which the domestic political elites had lost legitimacy once they had dragged their countries into warfare. International actors have often been essential in helping negotiate peace treaties between parties, usually by taking key elites out of the conflict zones to “third countries,” so that they may be less susceptible to various domestic attempts at influence or media pressure.

In this context, Germany is a very particular external actor for the Western Balkans: no other international actor has been viewed so positively with such consistency. The view from the Yugoslav successor states is that most international actors come with “baggage” or prefer to take sides: the U.S. is seen as “pro-Kosovo” while France is seen as “pro-Serbia,” and the perception of the UK is still tainted with the Blair-Iraq legacy. Surprisingly, Germany’s involvement in the NATO air strikes against Serbia in 1999 does not diminish its popularity as a partner, since the air strikes are often seen as an American initiative. Germany thus stands uniquely positioned as an actor able to apply leverage: not only is it seen as a non-biased partner, but it has manifested the strongest foreign policy interest in the region, compared to other EU members and the U.S. For instance, the UK has slowly decreased its foreign aid in the Balkans; the U.S. maintains a strong interest and presence in Kosovo, but has been decreasing its interest in the region as a whole.

Germany’s continuing interest in the region can partly be attributed first, to a domestic policy concern over migration and refugees, and second, to foreign policy considerations.  Even though there is no real threat of war today, Germany is still concerned with potential large-scale migration, partly as a result of the precarious economic conditions in the region, the still-unstable Bosnia and Macedonia, and the fragile Kosovo-Serbia peace process, which is seen  by German diplomats as successful, but holding the potential for disintegration at the slightest provocation.[1]

Germany’s involvement in the Balkans extends beyond the two factors mentioned above. Its pre-occupation in stabilizing the region also results from its own historical experience, since “varieties and complexities of Germany’s grappling with the past are reflected in its foreign policy.”[2] One view is that Germany has struggled with huge reforms and postwar changes, and that it now has the experience and opportunity to help other states through similar challenges. This is complementary to its interest in the broader EU integration project. Germany has long been one of the key drivers of EU integration (albeit, famously, “leading from behind”), and the current view is that until the Western Balkans, particularly Serbia as the largest country in the region, are stabilized and integrated, “there is no Europe whole and free.”[3] Indeed, Germany’s weight in the EU is recognized by the Western Balkan states, and it is understood that a country’s integration prospects largely depend on Germany. So much so that all states have cultivated strong links with Germany, including Kosovo. In the words of one former U.S. diplomat, “we may be the favorite foreigners in town, but the reality is, the EU is the future, and Germany is the key player.”

European integration as Reconciliation

EU integration tends to be a much-overlooked process of reconciliation. In the Balkans, Germany operates within the framework of EU enlargement: overall, the aim is stabilization of the region, and EU integration is both a means and an end in this regard. When it comes to reconciling and facing history, academics and policymakers are too quick to look at the narrow, or explicit, aspects of this process, such as cooperation with war crimes tribunals or the establishment of truth commissions. In that sense, countries of the Western Balkans are generally deemed as having failed or failing to confront the past. Certainly, the fallout of several court cases (such as the Croatia v. Serbia and Bosnia v. Serbia genocide trials) and nationalist rhetoric of some domestic elites do not bode well for reconciliation, understood in its normative sense. However, viewed more implicitly, through the lens of European integration, countries of the Western Balkans have made huge steps forward, often as a result of external involvement. If reconciliation is understood in its broadest sense as normalization of relations or the establishment of functional, “normal” day to day diplomatic, social, and political contact between former “enemies” then the Western Balkans appear as a reconciliation success story (especially when compared to other similarly affected regions, where conflicts and diplomacy remain “frozen,” such as Chechnya). This is also the view from inside the Balkans: a former Serbian foreign minister commented that, compared to East Asia, the Western Balkans have made huge headway in reconciliation and cooperation.[4]

Within the EU integration framework, much stress (and conditionality) was placed on “regional cooperation” of the Yugoslav successor states.[5] In effect, some of these initiatives, such as the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, and later the Regional Cooperation Council, replicated or imitated former Yugoslav links and spaces.[6] Regional cooperation has given way to some “big wins” in reconciliation. Two episodes stand out: first, the 2013 Belgrade-Pristina agreement, which “unfroze” diplomatic relations between the two countries, and the second, the 2014 Conference of Western Balkan States. In both cases, Germany played a crucial role.

Germany as a catalyst for Western Balkan Reconciliation

The substance of the 2013 Belgrade-Pristina agreement was perhaps unremarkable, since it does not put forward any new, radical changes, but it was ground-breaking in the sense that it enabled a Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. The view from Serbia is that recognition of Kosovo is no longer a case of “if” but “when,” since much of the agreement implicitly recognized independence (for instance, by agreeing not to block Kosovo’s EU bid, Serbia is implicitly recognizing it as an independent state).

Merkel’s intervention finally put the right kind of pressure on Serbia because it came from the right kind of actor. Merkel is seen as someone who does not take unequivocal standpoints lightly; her stance on the Kosovo issue finally sent Serbia the unambiguous message that it needed. Up until that point, Serbia had claimed that the EU’s demands regarding Kosovo were not clear, as recognition was not a precondition for membership.[7] The EU’s lack of a common position on Kosovo independence weakened its pressure on Serbia. Thus, Merkel, representing a country universally seen as the engine of EU integration, could manage to do what the EU could not, and warn Serbia that unresolved neighborhood disputes are a real obstacle to membership. Merkel’s intervention also benefited from an opportune moment in domestic politics, since parties in power in Serbia and Kosovo wanted a chance at candidacy and reelection.

German efforts at Western Balkan reconciliation and integration continue, even as the EU gives off signs of enlargement fatigue. Recently, Merkel organized a conference of Western Balkan leaders to discuss integration prospects. Most observers had no hope for a tangible outcome. The conference certainly did not deliver any spectacular results, but it was symbolic, and it stimulated a number of smaller, but important, regional reconciliation initiatives. The conference encouraged regional cooperation and as a result Bosnia and Serbia presented a joint infrastructure project for EU funding. Albania announced that its prime minister, Edi Rama, will visit Belgrade—the first such visit since 1947. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to exaggerate these rapprochements, since a lot remains to be done; for instance, Serbia has so far issued only one formal apology, by former president Boris Tadic and not backed by parliament at the time, for its role in the Bosnian war.

The conference is a culmination of German efforts and continuing commitment to the region. Not only has it been the most active EU member in the Western Balkans, but it has also been the largest aid contributor, both through the EU and bilaterally. Since 2000, Germany’s bilateral aid to Serbia has amounted to €1.6 billion,[8] and €420 million to Kosovo since 1999.[9] Moreover, according to a German diplomat,[10] 30 percent of all EU aid to the Balkans comes from the German taxpayer. Much of this aid is directed at regional stabilization through economic growth. This is not to be underestimated. Unemployment in the region ranges from 20 percent in Serbia, to 35 percent in Kosovo (with 60 percent youth unemployment). In such cases, not only is growth through foreign investment and support for local industry crucial for the revival of local economies, but it is also an essential pre-requisite for any reconciliation process.

At the state level, therefore, relations are normalizing, and have been for some time—trade between most former Yugoslav countries is flourishing, for instance. This level of regional cooperation is one small, but important part of reconciliation; one step toward building a common vision and a shared space. However, a significant part of any reconciliation process happens below the state level. A huge number of civil society initiatives, often led by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), has operated in the Yugoslav successor states since the 1990s. German political foundations, in particular the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friedrich Ebert Foundation, have played leading roles in supporting, often financially, domestic civil society in various reconciliation projects, such as the ongoing “Memory Lab,” a trans-European “remembrance platform” that brings together German, French, and Western Balkan reconciliation experiences.

Civil society initiatives are important, especially those organized by Friedrich Ebert Foundation to reach out to political leaders, because important aspects of reconciliation are still missing in the Western Balkans. Whereas civil society is active in promoting reconciliation and apology and acknowledgement of harm initiatives, political leadership across the region tends to ignore or disengage from questions about the past entirely. As is well discussed elsewhere, political leadership, which supports civil society, is important as it can help lead to “institutionalized transformation.”[11]

Germany as a Partner in Western Balkan Reconciliation

Germany’s view of its role in the Balkans and elsewhere is that Germany has become somewhat of a “fix it country,”[12] and that its influence has been over-rated. This is not a view shared by Germany’s partners, especially the United States, who would like to see a bigger and more explicit German role in the region, especially with regard to Bosnia. Germany certainly recognizes and accepts its responsibility for leadership as the biggest country in the EU and as the former “Sick Man of Europe” that has successfully achieved reforms. However, Germany strongly emphasizes that it cannot change the situation in the Western Balkans alone, and that it needs more support from EU partners. In other words, countries like Kosovo and Bosnia cannot sit back and wait for Germany to solve their problems, because Germany’s modus operandi has always been to offer financial and political support, while expecting reforms and positive inclination toward change. Likewise, EU partners—most of whom had decreased their policy interests in the region—cannot sit back and wait for Germany to single-handedly resolve the remaining tensions.

Germany is likely to have a continued influence in the region as the Western Balkans need Germany: Germany has been virtually the only champion of further integration in the midst of EU enlargement fatigue. It is often seen as “the reluctant hegemon”[13] and that reluctance to be seen taking the lead on issues plays well here. Germany’s influence in the region can be attributed to its treatment of these countries as equal partners. Therefore, Germany can help reconcile the Western Balkans; it is the only active EU member state whose commitment to stabilization and integration is matched by its financial and political support, making it the only actor with real leverage.

 Dr. Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik was a Harry & Helen Gray/AICGS Reconciliation Fellow in August and September 2014.

 

[1] Confidential interview, 3 September 2014, Washington, DC.

[2] Lily Gardner Feldman, “The Principle and Practice of ‘Reconciliation’ in German Foreign Policy: Relations with France, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic,” Foreign Affairs 75:2 (1999), p. 333-356.

[3] Confidential interview, 19 August 2014, Washington, DC.

[4] Confidential interview, 19 August 2014, Washington, DC.

[5] European Commission, Regional Cooperation in the Western Balkans: A Policy Priority for the European Union (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of European Communities, 2006), http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/nf5703249enc_web_en.pdf

[6] Tim Judah, Yugoslavia is Dead, Long Live the Yugosphere, LSEE Papers on South Eastern Europe (London: London School of Economics, 2009), available at http://www.lse.ac.uk/europeaninstitute/research/lsee/pdfs/publications/yugosphere.pdf

[7] Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik and Alexander Wochnik, “Europeanising the Kosovo Question? Serbia’s Kosovo Policies in the Context of EU Integration” West European Politics vol. 35:5 (2012), p. 1158-1181.

[8] Federal Foreign Office, “Serbia,” http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Aussenpolitik/Laender/Laenderinfos/01-Nodes/Serbien_node.html

[9] Federal Foreign Office, “Kosovo, http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Aussenpolitik/Laender/Laenderinfos/01-Nodes/Kosovo_node.html

[10] Confidential interview, 3 September 2014, Washington, DC.

[11] Lily Gardner Feldman, “The Principle and Practice of ‘Reconciliation’ in German Foreign Policy: Relations with France, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic,” Foreign Affairs 75:2 (1999), p. 336.

[12] Confidential interview, 3 September 2014, Washington, DC.

[13] William E. Paterson, 2011, “The Reluctant Hegemon? Germany Moves Centre State in the European Union,” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies Annual Review 49 (2011), p. 57-75.

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Of cakes and their consumption – reflections on the UK’s position within the EU

Among the general maelstrom that is the crisis in the Eurozone, one of the most fascinating things to observe has been the United Kingdom’s ever more apparent marginalisation within the European Union. Put differently, the recent actions of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government have won it few friends within the EU.

On the one hand, the UK is issuing near-constant exhortations (or should that be demands?) for the Eurozone to put its house in order; after all, with half our trade going to the EU, there is little prospect of our ailing recovery gathering pace once more while the Eurozone remains locked in crisis. Yet at the same time, the Government has flatly refused to contribute to commit British taxpayers money to either the EFSF or the ESM. While this may be understandable from a domestic political perspective (after all what would the Daily Mail say?), it cuts little ice with other EU member-states, especially Germany, who are ultimately underwriting the massive bailout loans needed. Indeed, it’s rather akin to the UK ‘having its cake and eating it’. Is it therefore really surprising that President Sarkozy lost his temper with David Cameron at the EU crisis summit in October?

On the other hand, persistent rumblings about the desirability of a ‘repatriation’ of powers from Brussels, combined with the recent parliamentary vote on whether a referendum should be held on EU membership, which produced the biggest Tory rebellion for some twenty years, makes the claim that the UK remains at the heart of the EU look frankly risible.

Of course, the attempt to ‘have it both ways’ reflects a long-established in British European policy, which goes back to the Treaty of Rome – the UK does not want further integration, but neither does it want other countries to gain an advantage from integrating themselves. Thus, the UK countered the establishment of the EEC in 1957 with the formation of EFTA – until it realised that the latter was very much a second-rate organisation and it decided to defect to the former. The UK long argued in favour of unanimity as the method of voting in the Council of Ministers – because it would make it easier to block unwelcome proposals from other member states. And as many in the old western European EU member-states will testify, the UK was such a strong proponent of enlargement in 2004/7 precisely because it knew that the inevitable change in the dynamics of the EU associated with this would dilute moves towards further integration. As ever, the essential truth of this view is confirmed by none other than Sir Humphrey Appleby, who explains the UK’s support of enlargement in Yes Minister thus: “the more members it [the EEC] has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes”. When Jim Hacker chides Sir Humphrey for his cynicism, he responds, with characteristic nonchalance, “We call it diplomacy, Minister”.

But the indications are gathering that this well-trodden path of British diplomacy in Europe, together with the relentless pursuit of short-term interests, has had its day; indeed, it is now becoming counterproductive. Already in 1994, the German CDU/CSU published a proposal for a ‘two-speed’ European Union (the so-called Schäuble-Lamers paper), with a core of members pursuing greater integration and a looser periphery of other states. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the central idea of this paper was reflected in the CDU’s new proposals for deeper integration among the members of the Eurozone, which were agreed at its Leipzig party congress this week.

So Britain will already structurally be on the periphery; but more than that, there has been a distinct change in tone within the German political elite when it comes to the UK. Whereas in the past, German politicians were at pains to appeal to the UK, those days are gone. Already back in September 2011, the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) gave an interview with Der Spiegel, in which he was quite blunt about the UK’s role in Europe. It is worth quoting what he said verbatim (my translation):

Schröder: … In any case, it’s not the new member-states who are causing the real problems.

SPIEGEL: Then who?

Schröder: The biggest problems are created by Britain. Britain is not in the Euro. But the British always want to be involved in decision-making regarding a common economic area. The two things just do not go together. And secondly, the British have been extremely reluctant about any kind of further integration, and that is putting it very diplomatically.

SPIEGEL: You mean that they simply blocked any proposals to this effect?

Schröder: Exactly.

And only this week, Volker Kauder, the influential leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary party in the Bundestag delivered a pugnacious speech at the CDU’s Leipzig congress. In it, he singled out the UK for especial criticism, pointing out that, as a member of the EU, the British DID bear direct responsibility for the Eurozone’s success. And in the context of Germany’s proposals for a tax on financial transaction (vigorously opposed by the City), he declared (again, my translation) “Only looking out for your own interests and not being prepared to contribute at all – that cannot be the message that we allow the British to get away with”.

These are not fringe politicians, and such public statements give an indication that Germany has probably lost patience with the UK and is no longer prepared to make any significant allowances for its particular historical position within the EU. That of course has major implications for the future: there are tricky negotiations around the corner regarding the next EU budget, and it is difficult to see countries lining up willing to defend the UK’s budget rebate. But on other issues too which really matter to the UK – liberalisation of energy markets, implementation of the single market, CAP reform – it will be others defining the agenda, not the British Government.

At the end of October 2011, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wrote in the Observer that “Being shoved to the margins, or retreating there voluntarily, would be economic suicide”. Unfortunately, it looks increasingly as if that is precisely where we are already.

Goodbye to Guido

For those who watch and observe German politics on a regular basis, Guido Westerwelle’s resignation on 3 April 2011 as leader of Germany’s Free Democrats (FDP) in the wake of his party’s dreadful showing at the Land elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg on 27 March comes as little surprise, although the end has perhaps come rather sooner than might have been expected. After all, under his leadership, the FDP managed to secure representation in all sixteen federal states, and, prior to 27 March, governmental participation in seven. And to top it all, in 2009, Mr Westerwelle led his party to easily its best result at federal level ever, with 14.6 per cent of the vote. In fact, it was the FDP’s strength which enabled the CDU to leave its grand coalition with the SPD, not the other way around, and the FDP was rewarded with five federal cabinet portfolios for the first time in its history. Mr Westerwelle himself fulfilled his lifelong ambition of becoming Foreign Minister.

But politics is not about gratitude, and in many ways, the recent election results were the tipping point for a sense of dissatisfaction that had been stewing in the party for some time. Since returning to government in 2009 after an eleven-year hiatus, itself a sore point for the party with best record of all German parties in terms of governmental participation, it has struggled to make an impact. Thus, the party continued to demand tax cuts when the government’s fiscal situation clearly did not allow for these; similarly, it pushed through some ill-judged tax breaks for the hotel and hospitality industry, and changed the rules for providers of private health insurance, both of which are traditional supporters of the party. And as Foreign Minister, Mr Westerwelle invited known party donors to accompany him on his official trips abroad. None of this helped to disassociate the FDP from its image as a clientilistic party, nor from its unflattering sobriquet as Partei der Besserverdiener.

What is more, Mr Westerwelle’s predeliction for shameless self-publicity – remember Projekt 18 with matching shoes , or the 2002 Guidomobil – has not compensated for (and instead even amplified) his capacity for cringe-inducing appearances (on this, see the telling profile on Spiegel TV [in German] following the 2009 election). This certainly contributed to his finding the transition from opposition cheerleader to governmental leader difficult to make. In particular, in February 2010, he launched a frontal attack on recipients of social welfare (‘Hartz IV’) in Germany, bemoaning what he described as the country’s ‘late Roman decadence’ (spätrömische Dekadenz). This ensuing furore resulted in all the wrong kind of publicity for the FDP, and Mr Westerwelle’s actions sat uneasily with his new position as international statesman. As a result, he had the unique distinction of not only being the most unpopular Foreign Minister in the history of the Federal Republic (itself an achievement), but being the least popular politician in Germany full stop.

While his decision to step down as leader was greeted with relief by FDP grandees, the party is by no means out of the woods yet. Mr Westerwelle’s designated successor, the federal health minister Philipp Rösler, 38, is a relative newcomer and holder of a portfolio which has traditionally been a political minefield, and hence does not lend itself easily as a base from which to lead a party out of a crisis. Unfortunately for him, this is precisely what he will have to do: not only will Mr Westerwelle remain as Foreign Minister (at least for the time being), but the Economics Minister, the ageing Rainer Brüderle, has refused point blank to make way for Mr Rösler. Moreover, Mr Rösler may find it hard to combine his role as leader with his personal situation: his wife is also a practising doctor and he has twin girls under the age of three; indeed, he originally declared that he only intended to continue in politics until the age of 45. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that the real Crown Prince designate is the FDP’s General Secretary, Christian Lindner, but who, at the tender age of 32, was simply seen as too young to ascend to the top job just yet.

Lastly, spare a thought for Mr Westerwelle himself. All he has ever known is the FDP and at the age of just 49, his career in the party is now effectively over, and it is surely also now just a matter of time before he will also be required to vacate his position as Foreign Minister. Although he will clearly never be one of the Hartz IV recipients of social welfare he so vehemently criticised last year, he will now have to fill a significant void in his own life.

State Elections in Germany: Implications of the Results in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg

Normally, the only people who describe the results of sub-national, or Land, elections in Germany as ‘sensational’ are the winners of such polls. However, in the case of the elections held on 27 March 2011 in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg , the use of this adjective, for once, seems justified. For the results, which saw the Greens increase their share of the vote strongly in both states to score 15.4 and 24.2 per cent respectively, have turned the conventional wisdom of politics in Germany on its head. In particular, due to the Greens beating the SPD into third place in Baden-Württemberg, Germany looks set, in Winfried Kretschmann, to have its first Green Minister-President ever – and the first Minister-President who is not from the CDU/CSU or SPD since the late 1950s.

The immediate reason behind this shift are clear: in a country where the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster left deep scars, the ongoing problems at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan were always going play into the hands of the Greens and their traditionally anti-nuclear power platform. Turnout was up in both states, with voters pinpointing energy policy as a key factor in their decision. In that context, Chancellor Merkel’s recent volte-face on her government’s original plans to extend the lifespan of Germany’s own nuclear power stations looked to be a fairly cynical electioneering ploy, which arguably ended up benefiting the Greens rather than the CDU.

But local factors were at play, too. In recent months, politics in Baden-Württemberg had been defined by growing public opposition to the CDU-FDP Land government’s plans completely to demolish and relocate the central station in Stuttgart (the so-called ‘Stuttgart 21’ project); and the Greens had been successful in putting themselves at the political head of this opposition movement. What is more, with its large and prosperous University towns such as Freiburg and Heidelberg, the Greens have always been strong in Baden-Württemberg, and rather more bourgeois their more radical counterparts in Hesse or Berlin (on this, see the insightful, albeit rather patronising, portrait of the Green milieu in Tübingen which appeared on p. 58 of a recent issue of Der Spiegel). That in turn made it easier for disaffected CDU and FDP voters to pick them as an alternative.

What conclusions can we draw about the parties’ respective performances?

First, the Christian Democrats (CDU) performed very poorly in states which have traditionally been strongholds of Catholic conservatism. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU had consistently headed the state’s government for 44 years between 1947 and 1991, before losing power to an SPD-led coalition. But in Baden-Württemberg, the CDU had been in power, albeit sometimes in coalition with either the FDP or social-democratic SPD, without interruption since 1953 – a massive 58 years. The fact that the CDU failed to usurp the former state’s rather tired SPD government with its by now veteran SPD Minister-President Kurt Beck is bad enough; but to lose office in Baden-Württemberg is a bitter blow indeed.

Even so, Chancellor Merkel’s position continues to look somewhere between safe and unassailable, largely because of the complete lack of any credible alternative. Since she became CDU party leader in 2000, and leaving aside the self-influcted fate of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, all her potential rivals have either retired, given up or been outmanoeuvred by her. That said, her authority has taken an undoubted hit and may not recover for a while; fortunately for her, there are no more Land elections scheduled between September 2011 and spring 2013 – a period of almost eighteen months.

Second, the FDP fared little better, falling at the 5 per cent hurdle necessary to achieve representation altogether in Rhineland-Palatinate, and only squeaking home with 5.3 per cent in Baden-Württemberg. This comes on top of the result in Saxony-Anhalt last week, where the FDP also failed to take the 5 per cent hurdle. Such a run of poor results will inevitably reopen questions about Guido Westerwelle’s future as FDP party leader, and with three more state elections to go this year, his survival in office cannot be taken for granted. A particular danger point for Mr Westerwelle will be at the upcoming FDP party congress in Rostock from 13-15 May, at which he himself is up for reelection as party leader, although the rumblings of discontent within his party may of course signal a much sooner departure for him. Like with the CDU, though, the absence of any realistic replacement in terms of a seasoned national-level political figure may yet enable him to stay on.

Meanwhile, the results confirm that the SPD remains stuck in the doldrums, notwithstanding a strong performance recently in Hamburg. Despite the incumbency bonus in Rhineland-Palatinate, it lost almost ten percentage points and only just remained the largest party. In particular, its complete failure to capitalise on the CDU’s weakness in Baden-Württemberg will set alarm bells ringing at party HQ, as will the fact that it has been beaten into third place by the Greens for the first time in a sub-national election. With 30 months to go before the next federal election in September 2013, it has much ground to cover before looking like a plausible alternative to a CDU/CSU-FDP government that has, so far, struggled to get out of the starting blocks.

But the Greens are the party of the moment. By beating the SPD into third place for the first time, they have underlined their potential not just to take away votes from the SPD at the margins, but to challenge the social-democrats for supremacy on the centre-left. Of course, it benefited hugely from external events and once the party’s hangover (induced, no doubt, by the finest Spätburgunder the vineyards around the Kaiserstuhl have to offer) has worn off, it faces a huge challenge in Baden-Württemberg: it not only is entering office in that state for the first time ever, but it will also be the senior partner – with all the responsibilities that that entails. Given that, watch carefully what the new Green-SPD government (and will we be getting used to that order of parties in the future?) sets out in its coalition agreement. For while Stuttgart 21 constitutes an easy target, of greater significance will be the future of EnBW, the local energy generating company and the third largest in Germany after E.ON and RWE. For in late 2010, the CDU-FDP state government under the outgoing Minister-President Stefan Mappus effectively nationalised EnBW, which is now under shared ownership of the Land and a consortium of local authorities. With a party committed to expanding renewable energy sources now in overall political charge, this represents a huge opportunity to make a practical difference to energy provision in one of Europe’s industrial powerhouses.

Lastly, what does this all mean for the federal government’s prospects? Well, in light of her failure to regain the political initiative on nuclear power in the run-up to the election, expect Chancellor Merkel to become even more risk-averse than she has been so far. For the moment, with the German economy in full song, that is not such a problem, but once new problems arise, as they always do, the risk is that the government’s response may be slow, erratic or both. As my colleague William Paterson is pointing out, this is likely to be even more salient at EU level, where the recent Eurocrisis has shone a stark light on some of the tensions now inherent in Germany’s European policy. The politics of Europe’s largest member-state are therefore interesting once more.

The remarkable rise and fall of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg

The resignation of Germany’s Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, on 1 March 2011 marks the preliminary culmination of an astonishing political career. Catapulted out of relative obscurity to become Economics Minister in February 2009, he quickly became the brightest star of the German political elite, regularly outshining Chancellor Angela Merkel in popularity ratings. Just seven months later, following the 2009 Bundestag election, he became the youngest Defence Minister in German history at age 37.

And his tenure as Defence Minister, which has long been viewed as a political graveyard in Germany, was remarkably successful too. He was popular among the troops fighting in Afghanistan, not least because of his regular visits there. Most of all, he led and presided over the end of conscription in Germany: a policy issue which had largely been viewed as taboo, especially by his party, the Bavarian CSU, was jettisoned overnight, not with a bang, but with a whimper. In short, zu Guttenberg appeared to defy the laws of political gravity.

Until now. Already, there were rumblings over his style of leadership: questions had been asked about his handling of allegations over initiation rites on the German Navy’s training ship, the Gorch Fock, and over an accidental shooting fatality in Afghanistan. But ironically it was over the plagiarism of his PhD thesis that he ultimately stumbled. In part, he had set himself up for a fall by portraying himself as a man of honour and integrity: the strapline on his personal website reads Verantwortung verpflichtet – an updated version of noblesse oblige. The extent of plagiarism which was revealed in his thesis was scarcely compatible with this ambition. But more broadly, in a country where a doctorate is widely regarded as a prerequisite for both social respectability and professional advancement, and is therefore more common than in Anglo-Saxon countries, the sense of outrage from the other (many) holders of this title, both within academia and the professions more widely, was always going to be strong.

In political terms, his resignation creates a real headache for Chancellor Merkel, as she has lost by far the strongest member of her government. In Foreign Policy terms too, Germany’s profile abroad will take a knock: as the Wikileaks cables showed, zu Guttenberg was regarded by the US in very positive terms. That said, zu Guttenberg’s career is far from over, and a quick return to prominence, perhaps as eventual successor to Horst Seehofer as Minister-President of Bavaria is surely only a matter of time – indeed, this would in many ways be an ideal outcome for the currently embattled CSU.

But zu Guttenberg was also being touted as a potential Federal Chancellor, and this avenue is likely to be closed off to him, at least in the short to medium term. That leaves Angela Merkel and the CDU with a real challenge: who might possibly succeed her, not in 2013 but sometime before the end of the current decade?

Horst Seehofer visits Prague

Now, I appreciate it doesn’t exactly rank alongside Willy Brandt’s remarkable fall to his knees in Warsaw, Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment in West Berlin, or Franz-Josef Strauss’ trip to the GDR in 1983. But Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer’s official visit to Prague is interesting for at least two reasons.

First, it’s a really promising sign that an utterly senseless conflict between traditional Christian Democratic politicians (exmplified by the Seehofer and some colleagues in the Bavarian CSU), and the Czech political elite, can perhaps be overcome. The background is conflict over the expulsion of Germans from the Czech lands after the Second World War, and in particular the notorious Benes decrees. Polemic is common on both sides of the argument, with some on the German side expressing discontent at the country’s modern-day boundaries, or not putting the expulsions in their historical context. Meanwhile, on the Czech side, the Benes decrees have not been repealed and have acquired an unwelcome political symbolism of their own (with the Slovak nationalist Jan Slota bringing a motion to endorse them as late as 2007).

I have no data on public attitudes on either side, but it seems that this is a conflict being promoted by political elites, rather than the wider population. German-Czech relations in the border regions work perfectly well, and for large sections of the German political elite, including much of the CDU and CSU, Erika Steinbach, the long-standing Chair of the Federation of German Expellees, seems something of an anachronism. Steinbach, in announcing her decision to stand down from the CDU’s Federal Executive, complained about the lack of support for her cause amongst parliamentary colleagues.

Secondly, it says something interesting about the CSU. Having lost its overall majority in the Bavarian state parliament 2008, the CSU’s leadership has presumably decided that it’s worth risking the wrath of expellees’ representatives in order to put to rest a conflict which the rest of Bavaria stopped fighting a long time ago.

What Iain Duncan Smith needs to learn from Germany

Iain Duncan Smith announced last week that the unemployed will, under some circumstances, be required to undertake unpaid “community work”, with strict sanctions for those who fail to comply.  His view what that this would help people re-integrate into the labour market, by getting into the habit of work.

Interesting, a similar mechanism was included in Germany’s welfare arrangements as a result of the Hartz reforms (to the welfare state), introduced in 2005: the so-called “One Euro jobs”, or, in administrative German, “Work opportunities with additional expenses payment”.  These have been roundly condemned by Germany’s National Audit Office, in a leaked report this week.

The One Euro jobs are offered to the unemployed by job centres.  Only social or public enterprises (such as local authorities, charities, schools or churches) can offer these, with such examples as reading to children, keeping an eye on quarrelling kids on the school bus, or picking up rubbish.  The idea, similar to Mr Duncan Smith’s proposals, is that everybody wins: the community wins, because useful tasks are performed that would otherwise be missed out.  Also, the unemployed worker wins, because s/he gets extra money (usually between one and 2.5 Euros per hour), without benefit entitlements being affected, and also gets social contact, professional experience and extra knowledge.

Unfortunately, the respected National Audit Office found that the One Euro jobs failed on almost all counts.  In particular, there were found to be significant “substitution effects”, whereby the unemployed ended up replacing employees doing the same work, but of course with proper pay, terms and conditions; this was particularly damaging to private sector enterprises offering the same services (for instance, litter-picking, or helping move public offices).  They also found that in most cases the jobs weren’t suitable to help people reintegrate to the labour market.

These findings reinforced a recent study by the Centre for European Economic Research, which found that those who had undertaken a One Euro job were actually less likely to find regular employment than those who had, possibly because of the jobs were perceived as a stigma by employers.

The German government is now reviewing the One Euro job programme, in particular involving trade unions and employers in scrutinising the placements made by each job centre.

It is vitally important that the British government taken some time to evaluate the German experience, before embarking upon a course of a action that will lead to see proper jobs replaced by unpaid labour in the public and private sectors, while damaging the interests of the long-term unemployed at the same time.

A version of this article appeared on the policy blog Left Foot Forward.

New tensions in German-US relations?

The recent (and highly vocal) criticism of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble over the decision of the US Federal Reserve to launch a new $600bn programme of Quantitative Easing (QE) have raised new questions over the state of German-US relations.  Certainly, Mr Schäuble, never one to suffer fools gladly, appears even less willing than usual to hold back – witness the public dressing down he administered to his spokesperson at a press conference last week. And while Chancellor Merkel is far too cautious to make such a direct comment on US policy, Mr Schäuble’s intervention reflects deep-seated unease among German policy-makers over QE. This has three interlinked political reasons:

  1. Throughout the fallout from the financial crisis, Germany has been reluctant to establish fiscal stimulus packages of the kind put in place by the UK and US. Germany’s two Konjunkturpakete in 2008 and 2009 remained quite modest in their scope. The reason behind this caution is historical: since unification, Germany has seen public debt shoot up, from around 40 per cent of GDP in 1990 to 73 per cent in 2009. Partially as a result of this, the federal government and the Länder agreed what constitutes a practical ban on new public debt (Schuldenbremse) from 2016. Debt-financed growth packages make little sense in this context.
  2. Linked to this is the spectre of inflation, which is one of the biggest ‘red flags’ in the management of the German economy. The scars of hyperinflation in the early 1920s, when the savings of much of the German population were simply wiped out, are very much to blame for this. In consequence, the overriding aim of German monetary policy since 1945 has been to contain inflation: hence the establishment of a Bundesbank independent of political control and the seamless ‘uploading’ of this position onto EU level in the form of the European Central Bank. The problem is that the risks of inflation with QE are high, even if, as a thoughtful piece in October’s edition of Prospect argues, no-one quite knows how these will manifest themselves in the future.
  3. Lastly, Germany is also concerned about the impact of any such inflation on exchange rates. The past decade has overall been quite lean in Germany, with, in particular, almost static real wage growth for most of this period. While this has hampered domestic demand and endogenous economic growth in Germany, the upshot has been that labour productivity and hence competitiveness has increased strongly. With Germany’s export-oriented economy once again booming, the federal government is not keen to see its hard-won gains in competitiveness lost through a QE-induced fall in the dollar.

Two Cheers for Angela Merkel

The European Summit of 29/30th October represents something of a come back for Angela Merkel from the May summit where she had been forced to concede to the Euros 440bn European financial stability facility  to prop up Greece while insisting that it run out in 2013 and be outside treaty rules. These conditions were insufficient in terms of domestic German opinion and the CDU suffered a humiliating reverse in the North Rhine Westphalia Land Election in May 2010.

Chancellor Merkel  learns from reverses , as evidenced by the way she gradually shifted her position on economic reform after the unexpectedly poor performance in the 2005 federal election. The lesson that Chancellor Merkel now  drew was not that lacking a European vision she had failed to get over the value of the eurozone to Germany but that bail outs were always likely to be electorally toxic .Her answer involves not only  tough rules  on fiscal excesses but that there ought to be the possibility of  insolvency for sinning states so that private as well as public creditors would suffer a ‘hair cut’ ,a situation which would move them to be more cautious (ECB President Trichet saw this caution as a potential danger) .The Federal Constitutional Court had not  ruled the EFSF unconstitutional but Chancellor Merkel fears that any follow on arrangement would fall foul of the Federal Constitutional Court which has increasingly been the source of ‘compelling demands’(Bulmer and Paterson) in relation to German European policy .Her solution was to suggest anchoring a permanent crisis resolution mechanism in the Lisbon Treaty..

Any suggestion of treaty revision provokes alarm among member states traumatised by the Maastricht ratification process .Chancellor Merkel has therefore taken the offensive .Traditionally Germany’led from the second row’ (Joschka Fischer ) but this was not an option on this issue. Angela Merkel is known for her dogged perseverance and a great deal of effort was spent in contacting other leaders in the run up to the European Council making it clear that the twin pressures of the Federal Constitutional Court and German domestic opinion left her with no alternative. David Cameron agreed to treaty revision without the United Kingdom in return for a German commitment on EU budgetary restraint

The European Council accepted the logic of the German position and President Van Rompuy was mandated to produce a proposal by the December 2010 Council meeting.Here the new post Lisbon machinery has proved to be useful. It is easier for  Van Rompuy than it would be for a national leader utilising Art 48  to craft a consensus proposal which has to be sufficiently minimal to satisfy the member states and sufficiently watertight to withstand a challenge to the  Federal Constitutional Court. This is also an activity at which Chancellor Merkel excels as seen in her salvage of the Lisbon Treaty and she works together with Van Rompuy better than with President Barroso. Her proposal to withhold voting rights from sinning states was not accepted.

In the months since the May Council Chancellor Merkel has successfully defended core German values .No real concessions have been made to France on economic governance of the eurozone  which would potentially weaken the ‘sound money ‘ principle and the suggestion that Germany might moderate its position as a hyper export oriented ‘extraordinary trader’(Wolfgang Hager) has been swatted aside. The casualty has been Germany’s traditional ‘european vocation’(Paterson) where no effort has been  made to  convince German domestic opinion of the centrality of the eurozone to Germany’s prosperity. It is clear that Chancellor Merkel does not believe that she could rely on pro European sentiment to detoxify any new ‘bail outs’ which might occur if her proposals are not accepted. The coincidence of the next   Federal Election scheduled to take place a few months after the EFSF expires in 2013  weighs heavily with the Chancellor.

Immigration and Citizenship in Germany Twenty Years After Unification: Deutschland einig Einwanderungsland?

One of the most resilient fixtures on the domestic policy agenda of the old West Germany was immigration and citizenship. By the late 1980s, it already had a thirty year long history, with the first recruitment treaty for temporary Gastarbeiter signed with Italy in 1955. It had also been over fifteen years since the end of recruitment (Anwerbestopp) in 1973 heralded the start of the transformation of a hitherto temporary migrant population into a more permanent community, as well as the advent of dependant migration. Even so, throughout this entire period West Germany remained resolutely wedded to the notion of not being a country of immigration (kein Einwanderungsland), a position which especially the CDU/CSU maintained on the basis that, in contrast to countries such as the United States, West Germany had not actively sought to attract new permanent migration to increase its population. At the same time, for good historical reasons, West Germany had maintained a comparatively liberal policy on political asylum and offered a homeland for ethnic Germans who had been persecuted under Communism (so-called Aussiedler).

Unification in 1990 had a seismic impact on all aspects of this self-understanding. For one thing, the associated end of the Cold War and collapse of the Iron Curtain triggered unprecedented migratory flows to Germany: Between 1988 and 1993, over 1.4 million asylum seekers and over 1.6 million ethnic Germans and their dependants arrived in the country. The sheer scale of this migration led to its curtailment in two separate items of legislation in 1992. At the same time, the demise of the GDR formally allowed united Germany to reconsider the basis of its citizenship and to move away from the pan-Germanic and ultimately ethnic definition which underpinned it. This culminated in the 2000 Citizenship Law, which inter alia introduced ius soli for the first time in history into German citizenship.

So, twenty years on after unification, does this mean that Germany is now an undisputed Einwanderungsland? Even when one moves beyond the rather simplistic interpretation of this question during the 1980s to consider whether Germany now reflects the structures and experiences of other countries with large migrant populations, the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains a resounding ‘Jein.’

On the one hand, Germany’s immigrant population is more settled than ever. At the end of 2009, almost 7 million non-Germans resided in the country, including 1.7 million Turks. Over 95 percent of non-Germans lived in the old Länder, with an overall average residence period of over eighteen years; indeed, over one-third had more than twenty years’ residence. Around one-fifth of the total population of Germany is formally considered to have a ‘migration background.’

In policy terms, Germany has witnessed a visible convergence with other countries in the EU. Thus, over the past five years, and in addition to the citizenship reform of 2000, Germany has passed not only the first immigration law but also, thanks to the EU, the first dedicated anti-discrimination legislation in its history. High-skilled migration is now possible from outside the EU. There has been a concerted policy focus on integration, with the introduction of formal language courses in 2005, a national integration plan in 2006, and citizenship tests in 2007. Institutionally, integration is now recognized as a core policy task under the auspices of a government minister in the Federal Chancellery, as opposed to a non-governmental commissioner located in the Labor Ministry in the 1980s. And although the educational attainments and labor market outcomes of migrants generally remain well below those of the indigenous population, this too is common to other countries with a similar migration history.

On the other hand, despite the 2000 reform, and in clear contrast to countries such as France and the UK, citizenship in Germany remains largely exclusive. Contrary to initial expectations, the number of naturalizations has actually halved over the past decade. Dual citizenship remains formally rejected and thus constitutes a key impediment to higher numbers. More broadly, and despite their long residence periods, migrants in Germany have struggled to make an impact on society as a whole and, some notable exceptions notwithstanding, remain largely under-represented in the professions, public service, and especially in politics. Perhaps even more fundamentally, Germany is no longer a major recipient of migration. Ethnic German and asylum migration flows have slowed to a comparative trickle from their peak in the early 1990s and net migration too has been broadly around zero since 2006. If anything, Germany is becoming a country of emigration once more, as both Germans and high-skilled Turks increasingly seek opportunities elsewhere.

In general, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Germany continues to struggle to come to terms with its situation as a culturally diverse and pluralistic country. Discussions about a German Leitkultur in 2000, or more recently Thilo Sarrazin’s tendentious and frankly prejudicial claims about what he perceives as the apparent inability of Muslims to integrate into German society, completely miss the point. For better or for worse, Germany has and will continue to have a permanent and large migrant population. Migrants cannot be expelled for integration deficits, as such a policy could scarcely be reconciled with the principles of the Rechtsstaat. Germany therefore has no choice but to do much more to give this significant part of the population a full and active stake in Germany’s economy and society at large. Calls for Turks to do more to ‘integrate’ are thus not only by definition tinged with a hefty dose of hypocrisy, they are also unrealistic and counterproductive: By tarring entire groups with the same brush, they, if anything, risk alienating those migrants who might otherwise have been willing to play a more active role in German society.

In any case, the demographic realities Germany is facing dictate that the country will need more, not less immigration. The most recent Statistisches Bundesamt demographic projections show that the country’s population is set to fall from currently 82 million to 65 million by 2060, with the proportion of the population of working age falling from 61 percent to 50 percent over the same period. Crucially, as well as a constant fertility rate, this assumes annual net migration of 100,000 persons – a level Germany last experienced in 2003.

Perhaps Germany could learn more from immigration countries such as the United States. For all its problems, the ‘American Dream’ remains a powerful image, which helps to attract thousands of determined and often highly able migrants from across the world. Tales of first generation migrants who are now millionaires abound in the U.S.; by contrast, in Germany there are literally only individual parallel stories. And yet this is not, as Sarrazin would have us believe, a question of the genetic make-up of migrants; rather, German policymakers have long overestimated the country’s attractiveness for high-skilled migrants from across the world, especially compared to the U.S. The ‘Green Card’ program of 2000 filled only two-thirds of its very modest quota of 20,000 places over five years, and those who came quickly found out just how conservative the immigration authorities remained. Tellingly, although such migrants can now be granted immediate permanent residence in Germany, only 450 persons obtained this status between 2005 and 2008 – that’s just 150 each year.

Germany has certainly come a long way since the late 1980s, something which is already reflected in the fact that the term Einwanderungsland no longer appears in public discourse, on either side of the political spectrum. But Germany has not yet grasped the extent to which recent migration has already changed it, as well as the extent to which it must change itself in order to prepare itself for the future.

This essay appeared in the Advisor of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) on 1 October 2010. It is part of a series of AICGS essays celebrating twenty years of German unity.