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Vol 2, No 18
9 May 2000
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EU flag sliceHesitant Hegemon:
Germany and EU enlargement
Jens Boysen

Ten years after the democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), twelve countries from this region, under the so-called Europe Agreements, have entered into the stage of negotiating for accession to the European Union. The fact that, from the EU's point of view, this process is called "enlargement," shows the double challenge that the integration process entails: For the one side, it means entering into what they regard as an ultimate safe haven in political and economic terms, indeed, as their "true home;" for the other side, it means almost doubling their size, greatly increasing their heterogeneity and thereby acknowledging the end of "Western" and "Eastern Europe" as defined by Cold War terminology.

So far, the candidate countries have done comparatively more to reach a state of maturity for accession than have the incumbent EU members for enlargement. The major reason for this is the different perception of the process by the two groups of countries: The candidates, most of all the "leading" ones of Central Europe proper, have been invoking history (or what they make of it) ever since the 1980s in order to underscore their claim to EU membership, as it is, to being "first rate Europeans." For them, accession to the EU is without alternative, a virtual rebirth after a catastrophic twentieth century. The gradual erosion of their initial enthusiasm at the sight of the EU's heavy-handed policies has not killed the will to accession, but rather stiffened the countries of CEE's determination to co-shape the conditions of their entry.

For today's EU members, on the other hand, the whole process is more ambiguous, in that it requires them to break up the comfortable mould of the "old" EU, ie the small, relatively homogeneous, US-protected Western Europe of post-World War II. In different words, they have to give up what in a German context has been called machtgeschützte Innerlichkeit (sort of a cosy, self-centred well-being within the confines of an external protective force). To be sure, this has not been rendered necessary by accession alone: Both "globalisation" and visible US reluctance to continue bearing the costs of maintaining the Western world alone, put the Europeans under increasing pressure to modernise throughout the 1990s.

So it was not mere benevolence when finally the EU member states committed themselves to enlargement, but it was their only chance to keep peace on the continent and to become a global player. Still, ever since the signing of the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997, the disorientation of the present EU about its finalité politique, which translates best as "To what end actually are we doing this?", has become obvious.

Since January 2000, the eyes of Europe have been set on the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in The Hague, convened to reform the institutional and procedural shortcomings of the Treaty on European Union, so as to get the EU ready for enlargement. So far, there is little progress, while negotiations on the more sensitive issues like agriculture are meeting with increasing difficulties, now that the time for niceties is definitely over and hard economic interests are dominating everybody's approach.

Doubtless, this is essentially a healthy development, but, at the same time, it is testing the limits of mutual confidence and political stamina in the "New Europe." What irates the applicants most of all is the stubborn refusal on part of the EU to tell a precise date for accession: While expressing "optimism" on the candidates' progress, it keeps formally ignoring the unilateral date settings by CEE countries, which they claim are necessary to keep up the reform spirit at home. In this situation of gridlock, the candidates are trying to make use of the EU's dual character, as a semi-federal construction, and to call on single countries to help them. Here, the first choice for most of them is Germany.

An "informal empire"?

It is not really a choice, though. By virtue of its geographical position and economic weight, Germany is in every respect closest to the candidate countries and going to profit most from enlargement. Ever since the post-socialist countries started diverting their trade westward, Germany has been their main trading partner. At present, the EU accounts for ca 60 percent of both CEE exports and imports; within this, Germany alone provides for ca 25 percent of CEE imports and absorbs ca 30 percent of their exports, which equals just about half of the entire EU trade with the candidate countries. And it is bound to grow further after enlargement.

Not surprisingly, on the second and third ranks in CEE, trade is heavy with two other immediate neighbours of the accession area, Italy and Austria. Already, Central Europe has replaced the United States as Germany's largest trading partner. On the other hand, the US is the European Union's largest trading partner as a whole. Anyway, the candidate countries have been helping the Germans in their favourite collective occupation – running an ever larger external trade surplus.

The German industry has, for a long time, maintained special links with the countries to the east. After the days of the "informal empire" and the more direct exploitation of occupied Central and Eastern Europe during World War II, German business rooted itself deeply in the growing EC market, yet never turned its back entirely on the "other Europe." Still deep in the Cold War, the Ostausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft (Eastern Committee of German Business) was created, which tried to organise what trade was possible with the then Communist countries.

The takeover of the CEE markets after 1989 has, as indicated, boosted exports and given the German corporations a field of action with next to no (non-German) competition. Many have been able to cut the costs for production, too, by profiting from the lasting income gap across the Oder-Neisse line and the resulting possibility to locate the labour-intensive production steps in branch factories across the border. In this and other ways, German corporations are leading in providing direct foreign investment in CEE; across the Polish border (the world's steepest income threshold, with an income ratio between Germany to Poland of ten to one), this money flux is so high that, according to the Polish government, in the statistics it appears as an increased export deficit.

Indeed, German business investments in CEE are larger than in eastern Germany. This region, after the buyout and shutdown of most former GDR companies by West German corporations, has been turned into basically a market for West German products; at the same time, the new Länder have been pushed close to West German income standards and a highly-developed social infrastructure. Some new production sites have been built there, too, but the real profits are made beyond the eastern borders.

Geography matters in a still broader sense, notably with respect to transport, a little publicised, yet crucial EU policy, and not by accident one of the few "common policies." The core piece of the old long-distance route, usually referred to as "Paris-Moscow," ranges from Berlin via Poznań to Warsaw. From where it splits into routes to Lviv-Odessa, Lublin-Kiyv, Minsk-Smolensk-Moscow and the "Via baltica" through the Baltic states to St Petersburg. The Berlin-Warsaw track is one major target of the Trans-European Networks (TEN) programme of the EU; modern transport structures are a precondition for both trade growth and spatial integration.

Here, the prominence of German-Polish cooperation is obvious; for a couple of years now, spatial planners from both countries have been working on a joint "grand design" for the physical "reunification" of Europe.

From this process of spatial reconstruction, Germany is to profit substantially; arguably, it started already with the GDR's joining in 1990 of the Federal Republic and what then still was the European Community. Even before, in a funny way, the GDR had held the de-facto status of "13th EC member state," given the preferable conditions for GDR products traded on the West German and, hence, EC market.

Despite the territorial losses after World War II, which were finally acknowledged in the 1991 German-Polish "Treaty on Friendship and Good Neighbourliness," the vanishing of the Soviet Union and the receding of Russia's borders has returned to reunited Germany the position of the single strongest power in Central Europe. The traditional German use of the word "Mitteleuropa" not only includes Germany in it but puts it at centre position.

The word got its notoriety from a negative interpretation of the 1915 book Mitteleuropa by Friedrich Naumann, a leading liberal intellectual and politician of Imperial Germany. In this work, he outlined a core Europe under German – especially economic – hegemony, achieving a form of autarchy to be defended against the "fringe powers" of Britain and Russia. The domination of Central Europe (basically little different from the pre-1914 situation) he regarded as a substitute for Germany's lost overseas empire, and he even welcomed this change in the vein of Halford John Mackinder's fundamental distinction between sea and land powers.

For a war-time imperialist concept, and compared to at least the early works of, say, a Rudyard Kipling, the book's approach is very civilised and rational (and one may well see here a certain similarity to more recent, not only German, drafts of a "core Europe"). What ruined its reputation and that of German Geopolitik altogether was the Nazis' selective and murderous interpretation of its ideas during World War II.

The present situation bears some similarity to the inter-war period, when the Weimar Republic forged close economic links, on a classical partition-of-labour basis, with most countries of Central and South Eastern Europe. This way, the German economy won new supply areas for raw materials, as well as markets for its industrial products, and managed to partially compensate for the loss of West European markets and the huge reparation costs under the Versailles Treaty. Historians call this relationship the "informal empire" of the Weimar Republic, and it did resemble Mitteleuropa.

A "final victory"?

Here, one touches on the further-reaching political significance of the ongoing political (r)evolution. As indicated, this "European reunification" (a term coined by Jacques Delors) mirrors, both physically and symbolically, those of Berlin and Germany in 1989-90. The whole process means the reversal of the post-war political geography known by Central Europeans as "Yalta Europe," and thus - though no German politician would dare say so openly, and indeed, most would credibly deny to even think so – the effective end to the anti-German power posture as it resulted from the world war era. The Allies, as it stands, have receded into history.

While principally directed against Germany, the "Yalta" scheme was established widely at the cost of the other Central Europeans, who felt utterly betrayed (for the second time since 1939) by their alleged friends from the West. Forty years of "real socialism" have endowed them with a hard-boiled realism and an eye for a country's real interests. They quickly realised the fact that neither Britain nor France are able or willing to come forward with much more than sympathetic but limited assistance. Hence, not even the vivid memory of World War II has prevented the Central Europeans from identifying, even if grudgingly, Germany as the natural partner for their "return to Europe."

This way, in the very end, both Central Europeans sensu stricto and Germans are inclined to perceive as "normalisation" the return of a Central Europe free from Russian domination and "guided" by Germany towards European integration. Of course, for all outward similarity, the situation is markedly different from the inter-war period: Germany is a solid democracy and, in the age of geo-economics, notions of a fear of foreign domination, as they are sometimes raised in Central Europe, make little sense.

The candidate countries, and certainly their political elites, know well enough that in a capitalist world the relationship between capital-rich and capital-poor partners cannot look equal and that the egotism of German corporations has nothing to do with any political expansionism. The protests of farmers and other short-term losers of economic restructuring in CEE, even where they may be vocally directed against German influence, in fact target the entire accession process. The irony here is that enlargement is the only measure which might, at least to some degree, reduce Germany's dominant position by facilitating trade between CEE and more distant EU countries.

There is, true, one real issue that burdens, to a point, Germany's relations with its eastern neighbours, and that is the policies on free movement and settlement after enlargement. Actually, there are two parts to it, although they are usually treated separately: On one hand, Germany (and Austria, which shares, on a smaller scale, most of the German political predicament) is worried about a possible massive influx of labour migrants after the accession of CEE states and might demand transition periods for the free movement of workers. The Central Europeans refute this suggestion, pointing – and correctly so - to the mutual benefits which have already resulted from trade liberalisation.

On the other hand, the late 1990s saw a prolonged haggling between Berlin, Warsaw and Prague – governments, parliaments and all - over how best to deal with the results of World War II, specifically the expulsion of the Germans from the territories ceded to Poland and from what then was Czechoslovakia. Whilst the territorial question has been settled, representatives of the expelled and refugees in Germany insist on their own and their descendants' right to settle again in their old home provinces, which they call a "human right" and a "European obligation," as well as Heimatrecht (someone's right to live where he was born, regardless of sovereignty rights).

While European law basically outbears this point of view, the problem lies with the idea of making a formal recognition of these claims a condition for the German ratification of CEE accession. The Polish and Czech governments do not deny the right of settlement, but they try to obtain transition periods for the opening of the real estate market to "foreigners," read: Germans (in 1993, the Danes obtained a similar clause against "foreigners" in the revised version of the Maastricht Treaty).

None of these proposals makes much sense in the long-term; what they reveal is the need for continued confidence-building in the border areas.

It is more than obvious that for the Germans, though they share the difficulties of reform, the end of the "old" EU holds a much larger "win" element than for most other EU members. They may even expect the accession of their immediate eastern neighbours to further strengthen Berlin's position as the EU's central player. Yet, overt expressions of hegemony are anathema to the German political elite.

A fear of power?

On the whole, the political leaders in Central Europe seem to be less concerned about any German "meddling" than about a lack of determination and clear strategy in Berlin. In these days of stalemate, they are increasingly calling on the Germans as their "protectors," but the old shine of exemplary pro-Europeanism seems to have disappeared under a government with an explicitly unromantic approach to things. Strangely enough, this "pragmatic" government displays a pitiful undecisiveness where any leadership would be better than no leadership. But then, "leadership" is a word which the Germans do not like at all.

The difficulties the Germans have with assuming a leading role in the east must be understood from the general context of European integration. Since the 1950s, the (West) Germans have linked their national destiny to that of Western, and especially European, integration. This they did for pragmatic as well as for ideological reasons. Only in community with the other Western nations did the Germans stand a chance of living safely and wealthily and regaining, step by step, their sovereignty.

Beyond that, after the "moral catastrophe" of the Third Reich, nationalism was even more discredited in Germany than elsewhere; hence, European integration, together with traditional federalism, became not only a practical device but a substitute Weltanschauung for many Germans. This is why, although the integration process, hand in hand with NATO, gradually enhanced West Germany's standing as an economic power, an almost canonical rhetoric developed in Bonn, insisting that German reunification and European integration must almost go together, subordinating any national interest to the common European cause (a statement rather unthinkable on part of the French or British).

After 1989, Germany reacted to the new situation, which so clearly advantaged the country, by adopting the role of "protector" of CEE, promising to get them into the EC. To a good part, this was an expression of real gratitude for the Central European revolutionaries, without whose decisive first chippings at the Communist regimes, as the Germans understood very well, the Berlin Wall would not have come down.

Until 1991, Bonn, together with the other western powers, tried to preserve the Soviet Union, due to the gratitude felt for Gorbachev's policies. But when it finally succumbed, Germany set out pushing eastern enlargement of the EU and NATO, even where initially her allies were more hesitant. Then, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), generally striving to be the most European of politicians, went as far as giving quick, hard-to-keep promises on early accession, at least to the relatively advanced Visegrád countries.

In the late 1990s, the slowdown of both the inner EU reforms and the accession process created disappointment and even some suspicion on the part of the Central Europeans as to what Germany's actual interests were. With hindsight, it appears that what came to the fore then was less the result of political deception than the legacy of strategic illusionism with Kohl and his generation of dyed-in-the-wool Europhiles.

Committed to Europe

All established German political parties are committed to European integration; it practically counts as political extremism not to be. The CDU, ever since the days of first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer proud of its pro-European attitude, maintains its almost unconditional approval of enlargement, acknowledging the likely advantages to gain from it. As opposition, it calls on the Social Democrats to ensure a "quick and thorough" EU reform by the Intergovernmental Conference. Characteristically, it also emphasizes the security (third pillar) aspect of CEE accession, believed to facilitate the fight against international crime.

The CDU's Bavarian "sister party," the Christian Social Union (CSU) remains faithful to its traditional three-layer approach: Bavarian-German-European. It cherishes the concept of a "Europe of Fatherlands" and underscores the need to make enlargement a safe process, including extended transition periods in sensitive policy fields.

The Bavarian party is the unofficial leader, not only of the conservative-ruled Länder, but also of the rich EU regions. It was instrumental in establishing the Committee of Regions and in securing the constitutional rights of the Länder within the integration process, which before had cost the German regions part of their competences. The CSU is also the traditional mouth-piece of the German expelled and refugees; it was the Bavarian government who triggered the row with the Czech government over the Heimatrecht of the Sudeten Germans, and it will likely continue to try to influence the ratification process.

The Free Democrats (FDP - Liberals) represent basically a free-enterprise and individualist philosophy. Dwelling on their nineteenth century roots, they seem not to have any problems with deepening the EU within which, however, they want to see tighter limits to both Brussels and national bureaucracies. They favour enlargement, closely linked to the inner reform process, to take place soon.

Within their left-wing radical heritage, the Alliance '90/The Greens have preserved a sometimes moralising, but comprehensive civil society dogma, which they apply to the European stage. Not wholly absent appears to be an identification with CEE as the "weaker" side in the accession process. The Greens' admiration of the EU was always slightly buffered by their invocation of the imperialist past of most of its members, as well as the lasting injustice of north-south relations. This may help to make them favour a quick enlargement under "fair" conditions for the candidate countries. They are also opposed to protectionist measures against CEE products.

Overtly, there is a great overlapping of the enlargement positions of the Greens and of the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialists (PDS). They demand "equality" between the negotiating partners and have explicitly lauded the end to the two-group approach made by the Helsinki Summit. At the same time, they insist on being tough about the social and ecological acquis communautaire. It needs to be said, however, that these two parties are harsh political rivals and, additionally, the most pronounced representatives of West and East German culture, respectively.

It took some time before, in the 1970s, the Grand Old Party of Germany, the Social Democrats (SPD), became fully-fledged pro-Europeans. They always preserved a more "national" view of things than the CDU, and notably to everything affecting the prospects of German unity. During the 1980s, the West German SPD alienated oppsitionists in the Communist countries by maintaining, in a "high-level" approach, intensive relations with the ruling elites, but widely ignoring the dissidents. This is why, when in autumn 1998 the Social Democrats won the federal elections, the prospect of the "arch-European" Kohl being replaced by the "Reds" enraged and frightened many of the new leaders in CEE, mostly staunch anti-Communists. However, the SPD is clearly committed to the European process.

A hesitant hegemon at work

In fact, the Red-Green government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder generally continues the traditional European policies of Helmut Kohl. But they have exchanged Kohl's not always substantiated Euro-solemnity for hard talk on national interests, not without emphasizing that it be these very interests which make Germany the "natural protector" of the candidate countries. Visibly, the core rhetoric is still there, and only this government is ready to give unpleasant answers to its partners. A centre-left government being the one to restore the notion of national interest in German politics may appear awkward, just like the fact that in March 1999 the same cabinet decided to send German troops into battle for the first time after 1945.

With the Kosovo war still under way, the new government had to stand another hard test when, holding the EU Presidency, it was called upon to force a decision, at the June 1999 Berlin Congress, on one of the toughest parts of the entire EU structure, the common agricultural policy (CAP). Reforms of this policy (and of the structural funds) are crucial for the financing of CEE accession, unless the EU's own resources are to be considerably increased. Originally, in the 1950s, the protectionist funding of agriculture was in the interest of France, which, in turn, agreed to protect the German heavy industries.

But today, German farmers, too, protest against any lowering of their incomes. In turn, for the Central Europeans, with their partly large agricultural sectors (especially Poland and Romania), equal participation in those programmes is essential, both to retain the rural population's approval of accession and to get the money to restructure this sector with as little pain as possible – of which there is still going to be enough. The provisional solution found at the Berlin Congress pleased nobody; the tension between maintaining the cohesion within the "old" EU and its necessary opening for the new members again became visible.

The latest occasion for Chancellor Schröder to highlight his commitment to enlargement was the meeting in the Polish town of Gniezno, on 27-28 April, with the prime ministers of the Visegrád countries. A thousand years after the meeting in the same place, at the sepulchre of the martyr St Adalbert, between the Roman-German Emperor Otto III and the Polish duke Boleslaw Chrobry, the five heads of state signed the Gniezno Declaration, a solemn commitment to a Europe of freedom and security, free from nationalism and xenophobia.

Whether this was also a reaction to Austria's present trouble with the other EU member states is uncertain; in any case, it underscored a common perception of Germany's special responsibility for bringing CEE in. In his words, the chancellor remained cautious enough: Basically he called on the EU to get ready by 2003 for adopting new members, without indicating how he assessed the candidates' state of preparedness for entering. This way, the year 2003 did still not receive the status of a binding entry date. As it stands, Germany will promote her neighbours' accession, but at what pace is an open question. What is problematic is that, within the EU, the German government is not presently showing a lot of initiative in developing an appropriate collective position on enlargement, and nobody else is likely to take it.

Interestingly, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (called, like all political foundations in Germany, "close to," in this case, the SPD) has just published, in March 2000, a study which explicitly calls for a postponement of enlargement until 2006. And it has claimed to do so from a pro-European, even pro-candidate position. According to the study, for the EU – of course pending the institutional reforms – the costs of enlargement would already now be minimal. But for CEE, despite their advanced integartion in the world economy, the adjustment costs might still be rather high; they should take more time for adapting. More time was also required for them to adopt fully the acquis communautaire. A later accession date would also avoid long transition periods.

This view coincides largely with the scheme recently suggested by the German EU Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen in Brussels. He said he would prefer a later entry date, if this made possible an enlargement in groups. Although the Helsinki Summit of December 1999 had decided to take up negotiations with the countries of the "second wave," the differences in relative progress between individual countries remained, so that the Visegrád countries (rejoined by Slovakia) and Slovenia still were likely to get ready for accession at the same time, and, likewise, the Baltic states and the group of Bulgaria and Romania. The commissioner said he would welcome such a group approach, because it would greatly facilitate the ratification process. He was aware, though, of the fact that the more advanced countries would dislike waiting for the slower ships in the convoy; and he underscored that the established meritocratic approach would be applied consistently.

In no case, however, can this take from the EU member states the duty to get prepared themselves, as Verheugen stated when he reacted shortly afterwards to a study by name of "Europa 2000 plus," published on 25 April 2000, by the Deutscher Industrie- und Handelstag (DIHT - German Association of Industry and Trade). In it, the DIHT welcomes enlargement yet argues that neither the EU nor most candidate countries are yet ready for accession and that too early an entry would thus create avoidable problems.

At the V Europa Symposium, a meeting organised on 2 May by the DIHT in Berlin, Verheugen expressed his understanding for this sceptical attitude; he strongly emphasized the major responsibility of the IGC to come forward, by the end of 2000, with the reforms everyone knew had to be introduced; notably, qualified majority voting in the Council. He lauded CEE's "astounding performance" so far and doubted how much longer the reform governments might maintain the needed optimism in the absence of any visible move on part of the EU.

Politicians from other parties agreed with the Social Democrat; they all warned against the EU member states falling back into defending narrow national positions. On the other hand, they underlined that always in EC/EU history it had needed a lot of pressure for the member states to take courageous steps; the final IGC meeting – the Nizza European Council in December 2000 – was bound to deliver something presentable to the candidate countries.

Reviewing all this, it must be remembered that, as EU Commissioner, Günter Verheugen does not speak or act on behalf of the German government. When he assumed office, his first statement was a solemn declaration that from this day his loyalty would be exclusively to the EU. This can be taken literally, as far as his honest commitment is concerned. But of course, giving the post of Enlargement Commissioner to a German had a political meaning; it aimed at obliging Berlin to take special care of the candidates and at exploiting the specific experience and concern that the Germans, as a "front nation," are assumed to have for this process. But do they?

And the people?

Assessing the attitudes of an entire nation is never easy. The latest Eurobarometer does not suggest too much concern with the Germans: Only 38 percent of them, it says, are in favour of enlargement. On what the prevalent scepticism is founded is hard to say. One important factor seems to be, and not only in this country, a lack of information. Here, not only have the national governments still not given up the option of blaming unpopular decisions on "Brussels," but neither has federalism done much good. The Länder governments are just as tactical in their use of information as their Berlin counterpart. Few, if anybody, thinks about the rights of the EU citizens to information; mostly, it is local – municipal or private – initiatives that seek to make up for the non-information policy on the higher political levels.

But how about the first-hand experience, so close to the "east"? Alas, there is not much to be expected here, either. First of all, ten years after "external reunification," Germany is still not internally reunited. West and East Germans are struggling over their collective memories, unless they prefer to ignore each other altogether. Especially, many West Germans have never been to the new Länder; they still prefer traveling to foreign destinations.

Knowledge of Central and Eastern Europe is even poorer. The East Germans, apart from a short-lived "thaw" in the 1970s, kept widely to their own in the "Socialist camp." They have to start almost from scratch to be neighbours; this is not rendered any easier by the fact that after half a century the 1945 border must finally be brought to life.

But it has started. Thousands of people on either side are working, in many ways, on this great project. Euroregions line Germany's eastern borders, where local and regional people and authorities are taking their first steps towards a real civil life. They have no choice but to do it together with their "foreign" neighbours. It is here, that by and large the fate of enlargement will be decided.

Jens Boysen, 5 May 2000

Moving on:


EU Focus:
Mel Huang
Between Helsinki and a Hard Place

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungary Playing Hard to Get

Brian J Požun
Slovenia's Cities

Jens Boysen
German Hegemony

Rafał Riedel
Poland on Course

Robin Sheeran
Slovak Catch-up

Catherine Lovatt
Romanian Road to Reform

Jan Čulík
Anarchists on Parade

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Censorship

Oliver Craske
Britain Looks East

Andrew James Horton
Director Aleksei Balabanov

Elke de Wit
Football Flick

Wojtek Kość
Polish Sensation

Culture Calendar:

Sam Vaknin
Balkan Terrorists

Mel Huang
PR and Extremism

Czech Republic