Germany’s new role in Europe

by Herfried Münkler

Since the summer and autumn of 1990 – and the conclusion of the Two Plus Four talks and the unification of the two German states on 3 October 1990 – the German question has been answered: the Federal Republic of Germany recognised the Oder and Neisse as its eastern border in a treaty, binding under international law; the division of the nation into two states came to an end; and the front line between the Eastern and Western military alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – ceased to run through the heart of Europe.

Herfried Munkler

In 1990, and for a long time after that, when people wanted to acknowledge the political changes that had taken place since autumn 1989, they primarily looked back into the past and wha they saw was marked by a feeling of gratitude and relief: the II World War was now finally over and the fall of the Berlin Wall meant the end of a border that had been a constant manifestation of the provisional nature of peace in Europe. Geographical Europe could now be politically restructured.

The resolution of the “German question” and the end of the division of Europe led to the disappearance from world Politics of a flashpoint that only a few years before had become caught up in a deadly cycle of armament and rearmament. Instead of the stationing of new missiles, disarmament was carried out on a grand scale: the Soviet Army withdrew from Central Europe, the Americans reduced their military presence in Western Europe and the Bundeswehr soon had less than half as many troops. It is entirely understandable that under these circumstances the view of the future was overshadowed by that of the past. The future role a united Germany would play in Europe was not an issue that occupied German public opinion. The view of the future was eclipsed by the prospect that the past was now finally over.

People did not think about Germany’s future role in Europe and the world, because soon after Reunification the Germans became very much preoccupied with themselves: the economic integration of the new eastern states was far more difficult than expected because most of the production facilities in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) turned out to be on their last legs. These economic problems were transformed into social upheavals, and by the end of the 1990s Germany was considered the problem child of Europe for whom others had to make allowances – for example, in relation to national debt. It was inconceivable then that Germany would one day be able to present itself as a “role model” on matters of fiscal policy and budget consolidation. Furthermore, the introduction of the Euro suggested the Federal Republic had given away what had previously been its most important instrument of power over other European economies, namely the deutschmark.

Everything seemed to be moving towards Europe, especially as Germany, the most populous nation in the EU, showed the greatest readiness to integrate into a united continent. The problem was that Europe had changed in the meantime, and the more candidate countries acceded to the Union, the further the political project of a “United States of Europe” moved into the distance. What had seemed perfectly feasible in the original “Europe of Six”, the 1960s economic community consisting of France, Italy, the “old” Federal Republic and the Benelux countries, became a political impossibility after the rounds of expansion towards the south, north and east. However, no one wanted to discuss the subject in the euphoria of European unification. The identity debate, which eventually took place in relation to Turkey’s accession to the Europe Union, became a mock exchange without meaning. The European Union had long ago become too large and too heterogeneous to be able to speak of a common identity. However, when members of group argue someone else is an outsider, they imply a shared identity that they do not actually have.

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