A Reflective Power?

Foreign-Policy Positioning in Germany’s Electoral Campaign

Berlin TV Tower

Opening lecture at the Center for International Studies, Babeș-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca, 28 March 2017

Surrounded by global and European uncertainties, Germany is expecting federal legislative elections on 24 September 2017. European integration, the transatlantic alliance and the cooperation with Russia have been bedrocks of Germany’s foreign policy and its official international identity as a “reflective power” (Frank-Walter Steinmeier). All three fundaments are now subject to eroding forces or unprecedented political challenges. External turbulences interact with domestic tendencies of popular concern and distrust regarding the governing political elites and their European crisis management capacities.

In my talk, I discussed how Germany’s political parties and representatives address these challenges in the electoral campaign, what are the likely outcomes of the election and how they could affect Germany’s future role in Europe.

The term “reflective power” has been coined to express an awareness of Germany’s de-facto power as the largest member state and dominant economy in the European Union. The implied claim is that the use of power will be guided by “restraint, deliberation and [an orientation towards] peaceful negotiation” (Steinmeier). However, the term also fulfills additional discursive functions. It is placed in contrast to “Gestaltungsmacht” (the power to shape a political decision-making process) which has become a popular term describing the government’s new readiness to engage earlier, more decisively and more substantially in international conflict prevention. Notably, official documents like the 2016 white paper on German security policy and the 2012 concept on Germany’s role in globalization use more nuanced formulations and rather describe Germany as “a partner in shaping globalization” (“Gestaltungspartner”).

Both terms, reflective and shaping power, share the meaning of rejecting unilateralism and can be interpreted as reactions to what I call the “translation problem”. Whereas traditionally German governments have been able to translate Germany’s power into a stronger European Union, European integration has now become more politicized and populist Euroskeptic views are increasingly articulated in all EU member states. This “constraining dissensus” obstructs further power translations and has made Germany’s power more visible. Critics of European integration now regularly frame the EU as a format of German hegemony.

In my lecture, I analyzed how political parties adress the translation problem during the electoral campaign. Six approaches can be distinguished:

(1) Respecting and enforcing collectively agreed binding EU rules that allow to regulate and civilize the use of German power as well as the power of all other member states. This approach tends to neglect the new phenomenon of intentional non-compliance with EU rules for the purpose of domestic political mobilization.

(2) Germany increases its financial contribution to the EU in order to ensure the continued support of other EU member states for a stronger EU. The main risk of this strategy is that it is likely to further increase the dependency of beneficiary member states on Germany.

(3) A stronger European Parliament that constrains the power of EU member state governments. This strategy underestimates the resilience of national voter allegiances.

(4) A multi-speed EU, respecting the sovereignty of member states not interested in further integration. This policy risks weakening the collective EU institutions.

(5) A civilian EU that precludes military engagements and the associated nation state-centered perceptions of military power resources, national security and national interest. In its less radical version, this approach relies on maintaining the division of functions between EU and NATO – an assumption that has been challenged by the new US President.

(6) Replacing the EU by partnerships among sovereign states. This radical approach assumes that Germany’s power does not represent a problem and could be done away with the assumption of sovereign equality among European nation states, thereby risking a return to a fragile concert of powers.

Which of these policy approaches will be realized depends on the composition of the future governing coalition. The first five approaches can be considered as “reflective”. None of them provides a silver bullet for solving the problem of translating German into EU power within a less permissive European political environment. However, their associated risks differ significantly and a more reflective debate is needed to highlight these differences.