Reality check for Germany as energy crisis bites

The confluence of challenges facing Europe – many of them global or even existential – is bringing a tectonic shift in outlook, as demonstrated by Scholz’s speech

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Wed 7 Sep 2022, 9:41 PM

When he was German chancellor, the erudite Helmut Schmidt famously quipped that “politicians who have visions should go to the doctor”. His comment encapsulated the careful and pragmatic German approach following the fevered visions of WWII: the people of his own country and those in the rest of the world want a Germany that is steady, staid, considered – maybe even boring.

So last week when current Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a keynote speech at a university in Prague on the future of Europe, few expected surprises. Yet as he delivered the speech, it became apparent that the recently elected leader was edging beyond the dispassionate and could even be accused of having a grand vision for the future.

Remarkably, he even cited French President Emmanuel Macron, an example of Gallic passion, who has often espoused a vision for a stronger, more independent and aggressive Europe. Scholz then asked: “When, if not now, will we create a sovereign Europe that can assert itself in a multipolar world?”

In recent years, Europe has had to deal with a massive influx of illegal migrants, the pandemic, war in Ukraine, potential energy shortages and certain soaring energy prices, record-setting heat due to climate change and record levels of post--World War II inflation.

No wonder that even the usually reserved head of Germany is starting to talk about the Big Picture. And it could mean a much larger European Union whose center of gravity will shift to the east.

In his speech at Charles University in Prague, Scholz said the European Union is in need of far-reaching reforms to ready it for enlargement. He advocated simpler decision-making processes – removing the veto power for EU members and replacing that with a majority vote – as well as a more robust system for dealing with asylum seekers and closer cooperation between member countries in armaments and defense. He also announced his intention to establish a new air defense system with European neighbors.

“We must bring the weight of a united Europe to bear much more strongly,” the chancellor said. “Together, we have the very best chances to help shape the 21st century in our, that is to say in Europe’s, interests.”

While his proposals might have surprised some, the most startling to smaller countries could have been his advocacy of removing their veto power. Many argue that the veto power bestowed to all member countries in the EU constitution has contributed to the sluggish, often moribund, response by the EU in times of global crises.

Scholz instead is advocating policy enacted through a majority vote on issues such as enlargement of the bloc, human rights and sanctions.

“We have to remember that swearing allegiance to the principle of unanimity only works for as long as the pressure to act is low,” Scholz later told the Associated Press.

“Where unanimity is required today, the risk of an individual country using its veto and preventing all the others from forging ahead increases with each additional member state,” he said.

The German chancellor argued that majority voting would make the EU better able for enlargement from the current 27 member states. He said the bloc should eventually include Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, as well as the Western Balkan countries. He noted the union could eventually include as many as 36 countries.

“Their EU accession is in our interest,” Scholz said.

But any sweeping changes to the EU decision-making process will be fraught with difficulty, as evidenced on the very afternoon of Scholz’s speech. At a joint press conference, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said his country was “cautious” on the matter of “shifting away from unanimity”.

Another theme of the address by Scholz also signaled a fundamental shift in the German attitude. He said that when it comes to migration and fiscal policy, “ideology has given way to pragmatism”, a clear repudiation of the policies of former chancellor Angela Merkel. During her long tenure, Germany as the largest economy in the EU was crucial in forcing economic austerity on some countries following the Great Recession of 2008.

As well, Merkel’s Germany was a leader in advocating the acceptance of millions of illegal migrants in EU member countries. Today those nations are still struggling to absorb the influx in a meaningful way.

The latest speech by Scholz builds on the concept of Zeitenwende – or Change of Era – that he announced in an extraordinary session of the Bundestag three days after the invasion of Ukraine.

The new era will be one of a more assertive Germany as backed by a huge increase in military spending. For a wider Europe, Zeitenwende would make security and defense the overarching purpose of the EU. A union that began as an “inward-looking peace project” must now gird for potential external threats, Scholz said.

The confluence of challenges facing Europe – many of them global or even existential – is bringing a tectonic shift in outlook, as demonstrated by Scholz’s speech. Gone for now is the high-flown rhetoric of liberal humanism. Today Europe has lowered its sights from concerns about the universal rights and needs of all men to consider whether it can pay its gas bill this winter.

- Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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