18 November 2015

The end of German power in Europe


For decades, Germany has been the dominant power in continental Europe, the driving force behind the European Project, the heart of the Eurozone, and the economic powerhouse of the EU. In addition to having the biggest economy in Europe, Germany possesses the largest population in the European Union, currently standing at 80 million. Since her rise to power as Chancellor in 2005, Angela Merkel has bestrode the European stage like a colossus, projecting an air of dominance that even the French have found difficult to challenge. This is an image that continues to be projected by international media. Last week’s issue of The Economist, for example, had Merkel on the cover, with the caption: ‘The Indispensable European.

There is good reason, however, to believe that the era of German dominance in the continent of Europe is coming to an end. Recent events have amply demonstrated the limits of German power, as well a high degree of recklessness on the part of Chancellor Merkel, with long-lasting consequences for the German people. More than anything else, the refugee crisis has illustrated that the days of Berlin imposing its will on the rest of Europe is coming to an end. Angela Merkel’s initial decision to open Germany’s borders to potentially millions of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and south/central Asia, has been met with intense resistance from many parts of Europe, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

The refugee crisis has shown in crystal clear terms the determination of nations such as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to protect their own borders and their national sovereignty. In Budapest, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has strongly resisted what he sees as both a diktat from Berlin as well as a threat to Europe’s Christian identity, a message shared by millions of voters across Europe, and even within Germany itself, where there is growing discord in the regions over Berlin’s handling of the crisis.

Merkel’s hand in Europe and at home has never looked weaker, and major questions will be asked of her own future as Germany’s leader ahead of the 2017 federal election. There is now open talk of a rebellion against Merkel within her own party. Mrs. Merkel appears woefully out of touch with the new mood in Europe, which is increasingly wary of large-scale immigration as well as threats to national sovereignty. She looks even more isolated now in the wake of the brutal ISIS attacks against Paris last week, orchestrated by Islamist terrorists including at least one Syrian who had entered Europe via Greece as a “refugee.”

Significantly, Germany is set to be overtaken within a generation as Europe’s largest economy, and within less than 35 years as the most populous nation in what presently constitutes the European Union. By the middle of the 21st Century, it will be Great Britain, and not Germany that will stand in the position of Europe’s undisputed powerhouse. Britain has already overtaken France to be the second largest economy in the EU, and the fifth largest in the world, and according to the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR), the UK is on course to be Europe’s largest economy by 2030.

Demographics as well are not on Germany’s side. According to official EU figures, Britain’s population will rise to 76 million by 2047, with Germany’s falling to below 75 million. By 2080, the population of the UK is expected to be 85 million, compared to 65 million for Germany. How the influx of migrants into Europe will affect this picture in the long-term remains to be seen, but current projections are clear about the trajectory Germany is going, with a shrinking, ageing workforce struggling to compete with other major European countries, including Britain, and France whose population is expected to rise to 78 million by 2080, by far eclipsing that of Germany’s. Within the next fifteen years, as The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has noted, Germany’s workforce is expected to fall by six million people, at a faster rate than even Japan, due to the country’s extremely low birth rate.

In addition, Britain is already a far bigger player on the international stage than Germany, and its influence will only grow further if it breaks free of the constraints of the European Union when the British people vote on EU membership in the forthcoming referendum. In military and diplomatic terms, Germany punches well under its weight for a nation its size. Chancellor Merkel has done little to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine, and has shamelessly implemented a policy of appeasement towards Moscow, driven by Germany’s heavy dependence on Russian energy supplies, as well as close business ties between the two former adversaries – bilateral trade between Russia and Germany is worth over $100 billion a year. Germany imports nearly 40 percent of its oil from Russia, and 36 percent of its natural gas supply.

Germany’s military is now so weak, humbled by waves of defence cuts, that a German battalion was forced to use broomsticks painted black in place of guns in a NATO exercise last year in Norway. With defence spending reduced to a mere 1.2 percent of GDP (way below the agreed NATO minimum of 2 percent), Germany’s armed forces suffer from chronic equipment shortages, and for years had to operate under humiliating caveats in Afghanistan imposed by their political masters in Berlin, aimed at keeping German soldiers out of harm’s way. German defence spending is expected to rise again over the next few years, but only by six percent overall by 2019.

It was Margaret Thatcher who noted as far back as May 1992, in her major speech in the Hague (“Europe’s Political Architecture”), that “Germany’s power is a problem – as much for the Germans as for the rest of Europe. Germany is too large to be just another player in the European game, but not large enough to establish unquestioned supremacy over its neighbours.” Not for the first time, the Iron Lady has been proved right on a key European question. There are limits to German power, as Mrs. Merkel is discovering. And that is a good thing. For decades Berlin has attempted to increase the centralising powers of the European Union at the expense of national sovereignty. Europe is now moving in the opposite direction, with the rise of self-determination the most powerful force in Europe today. German power is ebbing, British influence is in the ascendancy and the European Project itself is starting to crumble.

Angela Merkel is no longer “the indispensable European.” And nor is Germany the indispensable nation. By virtue of its size, Germany will always be a major player in European affairs, but the next few decades will see the influence of both Berlin and Brussels begin to wane, with an increasingly powerful Britain in the West, and a growing assertiveness from countries in the East, including Poland and Hungary.

Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.