Britain, France and Germany, the three most populous European countries, will all have held important elections this year – in many ways setting the stage for much of what lies ahead for our part of the world. Election campaigns can sometimes be more telling than the statistical results they actually deliver. What do people talk about? What matters to them? Which themes do parties or leaders try to push forward? These days, there are blinkers all around.
Perhaps (or surely) because I’m French, and based in London, I had a hard time understanding how it could possibly be that Brexit as a topic barely featured in the British campaign in June. A process of historical proportions and consequences for the country was all but shunned in the debate. Wonderfully patient colleagues at the Guardian explained it to me: Britain had suffered an immense psychological shock with the 2016 referendum result, and the country needed to look within itself in an attempt to heal. The election campaign was a moment of collective catharsis.
Having spent this week in Germany, I am struck by another inward-looking syndrome. The German campaign has paid very little attention to Europe, not to mention the world beyond it. It has practically dispensed with the question of how the country should relate to realities beyond its borders: the global shifts at work, how to define its role in a changing environment, how to strategically prepare for the future, and the external impacts that may lie in store.
Put bluntly, the British are navel-gazing because they’re in a bind; the Germans are navel-gazing because they have it so good. Theirs is the largest, wealthiest and most powerful country in Europe, and also the most politically stable among the continent’s key players. Like the British, but for entirely different reasons, Germans have taken a holiday from the world.
British readers should also be aware that German voters haven’t, in this campaign, shown the slightest interest in Brexit. German politicians have all but ignored it as well. Brexit wasn’t mentioned once in the TV election debate between Merkel and her Social Democrat opponent, Martin Schulz.
A word about France: it does comes across as a bit of an exception. Unlike in Britain and in Germany, Europe featured prominently in the French campaign – either as an object of celebration (Emmanuel Macron’s take) or as a source of all evil (Marine Le Pen’s line). But I’d argue that one of the many reasons Macron won is that he tapped into a typical French appetite to see Europe as a framework in which French “grandeur” can – and must – deploy itself. He equated Europe with a new form of French patriotism, if not hubris.
In Germany, the mood couldn’t be more different. I’ve just spent days in Berlin, Leipzig and Munich, meeting officials, members of the Bundestag, municipal and regional elected representatives, and civil society activists, on a study tour of the German elections with the Robert Bosch Academy. Here are some of the comments I heard. On Germany’s potential leadership role in the Trump era: “The expectations other countries have towards Germany are sometimes exaggerated. We are self-confident, but we don’t have any missionary zeal. We are intensely aware of our history”; “Trump is disturbing, but to take up a leadership role is just too much for us.”
On Europe: “It’s not a topic in this campaign because all the parties, apart from the AfD [the far-right Alternative for Germany], are convinced by the European project. Germans need Europe to forget they are Germans. It’s how we break away from our national historical burden.” On eurozone reform (said with a touch of irony): “Macron wants progress, but it might be expensive for us.” And on Brexit (when asked about it): “It’s like a satire show.”
One of the most fascinating developments in Germany is that, contrary to many predictions, the 2015 refugee crisis has not upended the nation’s politics entirely. How come? In Britain, it contributed to producing Brexit. In France, it helped Le Pen collect 10m votes. In 2015 the world’s huddled, desperate masses came to Germany – and yet, two years on, the country hardly seems to worry about the state of the world, or wants to even discuss it. “We are proud of what we did, the welcome culture, but it mustn’t happen again,” is the main answer you get when raising the question.
There will, to be sure, be a far-right bulge in the coming German elections, and a worrying one too. The AfD will get its best results in the former East Germany. When you talk to people there, you learn how the lingering difficulties of the post-1990 reunification period are far from dealt with. One local official said: “People ask: Why don’t you integrate us, rather than the refugees?”
Germany did experience, as one journalist put it, “its finest humanitarian hour” in 2015, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its citizens are eager to see their country openly march into a wider European role, or take on a new set of global responsibilities. Merkel, who has a special talent for calibrating her policies to public opinion, has found the perfect combination: she has changed her policies (the open door has partly shut again) but not her rhetoric (on Germany’s moral duty of asylum).
An inward-looking Germany (here I mean the population, not the team in the chancellery or the foreign policy establishment) presents risks for Europe. The public mood will make it harder to agree a collective European strategy for dealing with the dual calamities of Brexit and Trump, as well as formulate sustainable, smart policies on Russia, Turkey, the Balkans, China, Africa, climate change, migration – you name it.
To be sure, all politics is local. But the Germans will choose Merkel yet again because they believe she will protect them from external pressures, not help transform the world, or Europe, for the better. Most just want to keep things the way they are: an apparently placid, content country that likes rules to be strictly respected and doesn’t want to be troubled much by what’s going on beyond its realm. A Kantian village in a world that has become ever more Hobbesian. Can that be real?