German Helplessness

German priorities are now to hedge the damage of Brexit and to keep the EU together

Leo Mausbach
6 April 2017

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, former Foreign Minister and member of the German Social Democratic Party, assumed office as President of the Federal Republic almost three weeks ago. On Monday, he delivered his symbolic first speech abroad in the European Parliament. Presenting a plea for a united Europe, he also addressed Viktor Orbán’s current efforts to shut down the Central European University in Budapest: “Europe (…) must not be silent, when civil society, even academia – as now at Central European University, Budapest – are deprived of the air to breathe”[1].

On the same day, the newspaper The Times published a report with the title “Take in migrants or leave, EU tells Hungary and Poland”, citing “a senior diplomatic source from one of the six founding member states”[2]. The British daily specified – somewhat vaguely – that “Germany, France and up to 21 other countries” would plan to present an ultimatum to Poland and Hungary to take in their share of the refugee quotas or to leave the European Union otherwise.

Yesterday, also Chancellor Merkel’s deputy spokeswoman expressed great concern about the future of the Central European University and added that “Germany will observe the effects of this law on higher education in Hungary very closely”[3].

All these statements could lead to the assumption that Germany is abandoning its reluctance to openly put pressure on the Polish and the Hungarian government. So did Orbán overstep the mark by attacking the prestigious Central European University? Probably not. The German priorities are now to hedge the damage brought about by Brexit in the relations with Great Britain and to keep the remaining member states together. The mentioned report by The Times can quite certainly be dismissed as an unsound rumor in a heated Brexit-climate, as it lacks both evidence and probability.

Leading from the center

One cannot overestimate the horror caused by the scenario of a disintegrating EU in Berlin[4]. The European idea is the answer to Germany’s history and its position in the center of the continent, as Steinmeier pointed out in Strasbourg[5]. None of the established political forces in Germany possesses or seeks to develop a foreign policy conception for a post-EU world.

The new foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, former head of the Social Democrats, has surprised positively and found his role as the self-proclaimed advocate of the smaller EU member states. The idea that Germany, as the largest EU member, should take the voices of smaller EU countries especially into account, originates from the times of Christian-democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The crisis diplomacy of his successor Angela Merkel, by contrast, has left little room for the consideration of smaller countries’ concerns in the recent years. Lonely decisions, like the German nuclear phase-out and the “Energiewende” (the shift towards renewable energy sources) or her management of the migration crisis, took place without regard for the affected neighbors’ objections. Now, Germany tries to rebuild trust in its ability to “lead from the center”, a term coined by the German minister of defense Ursula von der Leyen in 2015[6].

French pendulum

All eyes are focused on the elections in France, now. Should the Brexit-shock and the Trump-shock be followed by a Le-Pen-shock, Europe’s least problems would be Kaczyński and Orbán. But even if, as expected, a pro-European candidate is going to become French President, the consequences of Brexit for the fragile European equilibrium are still uncertain. Germany fears to become politically fully dependent on France[7]. Alienating potential partners or even pressuring them out of the European Union is, thus, quite out of the question.

German helplessness

Apart from this, Germany is in practice helpless against threats to democracy and rule of law in EU member states. Open criticism might have an effect opposite to the intended one, leading to closing ranks behind the government. EU funds have proven quite effective in keeping up high support rates for the European Union even among its critics. Urging to cut funding for the respective countries would not only harm the German economy, but might also drastically reduce the EU’s high approval ratings in the region. Working towards the isolation of single countries, like in the case of the election of Tusk, can also hardly be called a constructive method. And pushing for the exclusion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party would rather reduce the influence on Orbán instead of providing tangible outcome. Therefore, the federal government favors to leave this field to the European institutions – or to the pastoral voice of the German President, who is basically a figurehead.

Migration in the electoral game

In the face of the upcoming elections, criticism of the governments of Hungary and Poland might become louder. Since both Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats of her adversary Martin Schulz are actively engaged in Germany’s policy to enhance European cohesion, conflicts with other EU member states will rather not be dragged into the campaign. Regarding the issue of migration, the Germans, together with the Italians and the Greek, are still convinced that a fair distribution of refugees in Europe is necessary. However, the German euphoria to finally be on the right side of history made way for a much more sober public debate on the challenges of immigration. Exerting pressure on other countries to take in their share of asylum seekers, thus, would not necessarily be a popular move.

The myth of German hegemony

Frank-Walter Steinmeier finished his speech in the European Parliament with a personal story. Last year, together with his family, he visited Wrocław, the birthplace of his mother. He knew the city from her memories, which were overshadowed by the consequences of unleashed German nationalism – war, destruction and her flight westwards. The place he visited in 2016, Europe’s Capital of Culture, was a different one, a lively city, where people from “Vilnius, Wuppertal and Verona” discussed and celebrated together: “There, the dream of a European future was alive!”

Germany is neither going to turn away from Central Europe, nor is it going to ignore what it perceives as violations of European values. Yet, its scope of influence on other member states is, regardless of the alleged “German hegemony” in Europe, very limited.

Photo: Protesters gathering on Sunday (2 April) in Budapest against amendments in Hungarian Higher Education Law that target CEU

Courtesy of Stefan Roch


Leo Mausbach works as Regional Coordinator for Germany, Austria and Switzerland at the Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. He graduated in European Studies (MA) at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and in International Relations (MA) at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the Free University of Berlin. On a voluntary basis, he coordinates the Eastern Europe Network of Fellows of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.


[1] CEU: “German President Steinmeier Speaks in Support of CEU”, April 4, 2017.

[2] Waterfield, Bruno: “Take in migrants or leave, EU tells Hungary and Poland”, The Times, April 4, 2017.

[3] Federal Government of Germany: “ Wissenschaftsfreiheit verteidigen”, April 5, 2017.

[4] Blume, Georg; Klingst, Martin; Krupa, Matthias; Ladurner, Ulrich; Schieritz, Mark; Thumann, Michael: “Blind Spot“, March 3, 2017.

[5] Steinmeier, Frank-Walter: “Besuch des Europäischen Parlaments”, April 4, 2017.

[6] von der Leyen, Dr. Ursula: “Leadership from the Centre”, February 6, 2015.

[7] Sinn, Hans-Werner: “‘Für Deutschland ist der Brexit verheerend‘”, March 16, 2017.