The European Union has experienced a series of disasters over the last 10 years, each one of which has posed a major threat to its stability. First, there was the fallout from the 2008-9 financial crisis and the arguably ill-judged imposition of austerity on the Union’s southern members. Combined with the migration crisis, this encouraged the rise of populist anti-EU movements. And then, there was the British vote to leave the EU altogether.
That the EU remains largely intact amidst all this is due in no small part to Germany. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has occasionally been willing to bear a disproportionate burden of the costs of crisis management. Even when this was the case, it could not always mobilize support among other member states for its stance on issues such as the refugee crisis. Germany has carried out what economist Charles Kindleberger once memorably described as the “bribery and arm twisting” necessary to keep alliances such as the EU afloat. In short, it has, to a certain extent, become Europe’s hegemon, an ancient Greek term designating the dominant member of an alliance or confederation.
Unfortunately, it’s a role that Germany has had increasingly to shoulder alone – and, as I argue in my recently published book, is unsustainable. As a “first among equals” Germany lacks the dominance or magnitude of advantage that typically exists in hegemonic relationships. Its traditional partner at the EU’s helm, France, has struggled with its own economic problems since 2008 and has taken a back seat in driving EU policy. And even before the Brexit vote, Britain, the EU’s second largest economy, had detached itself from the EU’s inner circle by remaining outside the Eurozone and out of the region of borderless travel known as the Schengen Area.
What’s more, Germany’s reluctance to alleviate the pain of economically-strapped member states aggravated rather than eased the Eurozone crisis, which was ultimately managed by the ECB rather than by Germany. Germany’s failure to consult on migration policy resulted in a number of other EU member states resisting demands to follow its stance during the refugee crisis. Overall, it cannot subordinate its own needs to the group’s needs to the extent necessary for a hegemon to retain its partners’ allegiances.
This means that if the EU is to survive the onset of a new crisis (or the flare up of an existing one) it will need stronger, more inclusive leadership than Germany has provided on its own. Given the absence of a single European country large enough to take on the role of hegemon on its own, it is likely two or more countries will need to come together to form a hegemonic coalition. There are three conceivable options:
A revived Franco German coalition
The resurrection of the EU’s traditional leadership constellation is politically feasible given the election of the Emmanuel Macron as French president in 2017 and the return of the Grand Coalition of German political parties in 2018. Franco-German cooperation can still be a powerful magnetic force in the EU and a bilateral Franco-German bargain can often provide a template for a larger Union agreement. This time around, however, it is likely the traditional roles would be reversed, with Paris looking to accelerate the speed of change, and Germany seeking to slow it down, particularly among those initiatives aimed at raising the volume of financial transfers between Eurozone member states.
A Weimar Coalition
While a rejuvenated Franco-German coalition appears obvious, it may not have the influence to mobilize Central and Eastern European member states, given the vast gap between their vision and that of the Polish and Hungarian governments in particular. An expanded coalition that includes Poland, a nominal partner of France and Germany in the “Weimar Triangle” founded after the end of the Cold War, could have greater legitimacy. However as long as the conservative and Eurosceptic Law and Justice Party remains in office in Poland, such a coalition will not materialize.
A new Hanseatic Coalition
The third conceivable coalition is named after the medieval association of trading cities stretching from the Netherlands in the west to the Baltic Sea in the east. This coalition would include Germany and the eight northern European member states whose finance ministers began to meet in early 2018 to discuss reforming the Eurozone. On monetary, fiscal, and EU budget policies these states are closer to Germany than Germany is to France. However, given their geographical and ideological positions it is unlikely they could integrate and mobilize the support of Southern, Central, and Eastern European members or that Germany would weaken its relationship with France in their favor.
An uncertain future
Whatever its make-up, any new hegemonic coalition will face an uncertain task. The nationalist and Eurosceptic trend which began in the 1990s and gained momentum during the recent refugee crisis amid public opposition to mass integration and long-standing fears about dilution of national identity and globalism, has crystallized into a major political force.
Across Europe, nationalist Eurosceptic parties have made significant electoral gains, in some cases taking office, in others becoming the main voice of the opposition, forcing centrist leaders to adapt their policies to win back conservative votes. Although there remains strong resistance to far-right parties, as evidenced by Macron’s victory, support in France for the right-wing National Front party is higher than ever. If President Macron fails in his efforts to reform and rejuvenate the French economy, as he well might, the extreme Right is well-placed to benefit from his failure.
The situation in Germany is similar. Last year, the AfD became the first extreme right-wing Eurosceptic party to win seats in Germany’s federal parliament since 1953. Having won 12.6% of the vote, it is now the country’s biggest opposition party putting pressure on center right parties to accommodate Eurosceptic opinions.
Particularly in the wake of Brexit, Europe needs a new champion and without strong support from a politically dominant hegemon or hegemonic coalition, the risk that the Union will fall apart in new crises is very real. And we don’t have much time left for stabilizing hegemonic leadership to develop. Right now, there is a two-to-four-year window – at most – before the next French and German elections. If these countries’ current leaders do not take the opportunity to weld Europe more closely together, then the next big crisis may well signal the beginning of the end to the nearly 70-year-old project that has kept the peace in Western Europe, fostered its democracies, and helped to deliver growth and prosperity by keeping European countries’ economies and societies open to each other.