When I talk to my American friends about Germany, most of them highlight one aspect of my home country: They say it is the most important country of the European Union, a heavyweight because of its economic strength and the fact that it has the largest population of all EU countries. This status also means responsibility. But does Germany, its government and its politicians meet this responsibility?
Yes, some might say. Yes, if you see Germany’s role in solving the euro crisis. Yes, if you see Germany’s mediating role in past and current conflicts like in Ukraine. Yes, if you take Germany’s pioneering role as the first country that wants to use renewable energies and stop using nuclear power plants into account. No, if you take a closer look.
In reference to the euro crisis, especially the situation in Greece, media both in Germany and abroad often repeat statements of politicians like the German Chancellor Angela Merkel or her Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble who seem to introduce one rescue package after another for Greece, the country that is suffering most from the crisis. Often it seems as if Germany pays the vast majority, and as a requirement for the aid the German government tells Greece how to solve its problems. The fear from some of the population that their prosperity could suffer might be one reason for the growing support of the right wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AFD). Even other countries seem to fearthe “iron Mutti.” In Greece her visits frequently lead to demonstrations as it can be seen in this picture.
It seems as if that was not entirely unjustified. In fact, Germany benefits from the crisis. Due to favorable interest rates on government bonds, Germany saved 40 billion euros between 2010 and 2014. The former Bundespräsident candidate Gesine Schwan even described it “as a conscious deception” in an interview with the explanatory political journalism show Jung & Naiv. Germany paid nothing for Greece, it has only won.
As a role model, Germany wants to be seen to be acting in the fight against climate change. Angela Merkel was lovingly called the “climate chancellor” after she spoke at world climate summits for ambitious climate targets; but only if they do not endanger German jobs. So it happened that at the EU level Merkel blocked more stringent CO2 limits for cars as the majority of EU countries wanted to establish.
It looks similar to the energy turnaround. After the disaster in the Japanese nuclear power plant in Fukushima in 2011, Germany quickly decided on a nuclear phase-out, as the first industrial nation. It wanted to be a role model, a country that relies on renewable energy. In 2050 the vast majority of Germany’s energy should be generated by wind or solar. Today, this goal seems further than ever because the development of energy sources and electricity networks continues to stagnate and electricity prices rise. Instead of renewable energy the share of coal power increases.
Expectations and reality differ as well in foreign policy. Past years it has been Germany’s strategy to keep out of conflicts. Within the Libya conflict during the Arab Spring, former Secretary of State Guido Westerwelle abstained in the UN Security Council vote that gave the green light for military intervention in Libya. Instead of being close to its NATO allies, suddenly Germany was close to Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Historic responsibility is often the argument used by German politicians to justify keeping the country out of conflicts. But as Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck said at the Munich Security Conference: “It is fallacious to imagine that Germany was protected from the turmoil of our time – like an island. (…) The consequences of the omission can be as serious as the consequences of the intervention – sometimes even more serious.” In the same speech Gauck demanded more military interventions.
All in all, Germany primarily cares about itself, its economy and its people. That does not have to be wrong. But caring about itself also involves showing solidarity from other countries, inside and outside of the EU. In the end, Germany benefits too. But sometimes, greater risks need to be taken into account, for the bigger picture. However, risk is something Angela Merkel is afraid of. She trusts in the proven and well-known. Maybe she can think a little more as a global citizen.