The recent battle over a plan to relocate asylum seekers across the European Union did little to appease the already deep fault lines among member states. The proposal was eventually approved, but only after a succession of threats, unilateral moves and violations of EU rules. During the negotiations Berlin was unusually uncompromising — an attitude it also showed during the discussions over Greece's third bailout program.
Although the economic crisis has made Germany the single most powerful country in Europe, Berlin is often unwilling or unable to completely shape the direction of the Continental bloc. Germany tends to lead its relatively weaker partners without having complete control of the process. In recent months, Berlin has decided to take a more visible role in decision-making in the European Union, increasing frictions with other member states.
Changing power relationships and polarities have defined Europe's geopolitical history; the Continent traditionally has had multiple power centers competing and sometimes cooperating with each other. Situations where a single power controls the rest are very rare. Berlin's recent behavior therefore raises questions about the future of the distribution of power in Europe.
Germany's Shifting Position
This has been a strange year for Germany. It began with a political defeat for Berlin, when the European Central Bank announced plans to purchase debt from eurozone members. The German government in general, and the Bundesbank in particular, had been skeptical about the idea, which Mediterranean Europe had long defended.
Germany faced new problems when the left-wing Syriza party won Greek elections on a campaign to end austerity measures and restructure the country's debt. The first weeks of Syriza's government were defined by a strong anti-German rhetoric and constant references to the country's Nazi past.
Germany eventually won the battle with Greece, as Athens accepted a third bailout package and the formerly rebellious Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras rebranded himself as the custodian of Greece's agreement with the creditors. But before an agreement was reached, things got very nasty for everyone involved. During the tough discussions over Athens' third bailout program, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble suggested Greece's membership in the eurozone be suspended.
Whether or not this idea makes sense financially is irrelevant. The important aspect of Schaeuble's suggestion is that Germany — a country that for historical and strategic reasons is interested in preserving the unity of the European Union and the eurozone — decided it was time to question the so-called irreversibility of the common currency. Berlin may have won the battle with Athens over economic reforms, but it certainly lost the public relations war. The dispute between the two governments resurrected old stereotypes of "the ugly Germans" and their alleged attempt to impose their views on Europe.
If Germany thought the second half of the year would be calmer, it was wrong. Shortly after Athens accepted the third bailout, a new crisis erupted — a massive increase in the arrival of asylum seekers in Europe. Germany's first reaction was to announce it would take an unlimited number of Syrians, allowing Berlin to show the world a friendly face after the Greek negotiations. But it soon led to significant problems, including an increase in the number of people trying to reach Northern Europe through the so-called Balkan route, which links Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, and conservative German leaders' questioning the financial and social impacts of Berlin's decision.
A Controversial Decision
As with the Greek crisis, things had to get ugly before new policy could be decided. In the weeks leading to the meeting to debate the immigration crisis, German officials suggested EU structural funds should be suspended for countries not participating in a plan to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc. It was mostly an empty threat, because Berlin does not control the EU budget or the allocation of structural funds. But, just like during the negotiations with Athens, Berlin suddenly found itself making public threats to its EU partners.
The strategy worked, at least in the immediate term. Countries such as Spain and France, which were originally skeptical of introducing mandatory quotas of asylum seekers, eventually supported the idea. Most notably, Poland, which held several meetings with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to define a common strategy against the plan, decided at the last minute to approve it as well.
But if the proposal to relocate migrants across Europe was controversial, the mechanism chosen to approve it was even more so. As EU members failed to reach a unanimous decision, the issue was put to a vote. Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary voted against it, while Finland abstained.
A point could be made that voting is both legal and democratic. After all, member states accepted that most policies would be decided by a vote when they joined the European Union and enhanced voting procedures during several reforms of the bloc's treaties. More important, voting is the clearest expression of Continental integration. The system seeks to equate the European Union with any parliamentary democracy, where political minorities have to accept the decisions of the majority.
The problem is that the European Union is not a country, and its members cannot be compared to the states of a federal system. National governments preserve their national interests and are still accountable to their domestic constituencies. Attempts by unelected institutions in Brussels and by large economies such as Germany to impose policy across the Continent will continue to encounter resistance, even though all member states committed themselves to the principle of an "ever-closer union" when they joined.
Naturally, Germany's actions are also dictated by domestic concerns. In both the negotiations over the Greek bailout and the discussion about immigration quotas, conservative forces at home pressured Berlin not to squander taxpayers' money in poorly planned rescue programs for Greece or in hosting an unlimited number of asylum seekers.
An Elusive Balance
These developments are noteworthy because they suggest a change in Germany's behavior. Berlin has known for a long time that, whether it likes it or not, its actions are key in steering the Continental bloc. But for historical reasons, Germany feels more comfortable operating in a system where decision-making is shared among many different national and institutional powers. If Germany decides it's time for more unilateral leadership in Europe, it will open a new era in the Continent's balance of power.
Since the consolidation of nation-states at the end of the 17th century, Europe has had several different power structures, most of which were based on a balance between multiple states. For example, a balance of power between the Austrian Empire, France, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom emerged after the Napoleonic Wars. The end of World War II started an unusual phase because the bipolar structure that dominated Europe during the Cold War involved a non-European power, the United States, and a partially European power, the Soviet Union.
The reunification of Germany in the early 1990s led to a brief period of European bipolarity, combining France's political and military leadership with Germany's economic might, as the European Union originally intended. However, the financial crisis put an abrupt end to this balance of power, for two reasons. First, France's economic decline reduced its political influence and made Germany the most powerful nation in Europe. Second, the financial crisis forced Berlin to protect the unity of the European Union while also defending its national wealth.
Germany did not react immediately. Berlin sought to preserve the image of a co-leadership structure with Paris during the early stages of the crisis, as exemplified by the "Merkozy" tandem between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy. This structure did not hold for long, however, and in recent years Berlin has been alone at the top of the European political process.
Amid the European crisis, the Continent's power structure has taken the shape of what political scientist Samuel Huntington would call a "uni-multipolar system," in which a relatively strong power (Germany) tries to lead relatively weaker nations, but without having absolute control of the process. Huntington used this theory to describe the global system, but parts of it can be applied to Europe.
A key element of this system is that neither side is entirely happy with the status quo. The dominant power would prefer a structure it could shape according to its needs, while the subordinate powers would prefer a multipolar system. According to Huntington, this situation is stable only to the extent that these conflicting desires can be balanced. But in a political construction that includes Germany and France — two countries that tend to have different views about the future of Europe — and also Portugal and Estonia — two nations whose geopolitical imperatives have little in common — both consensus and imposition are problematic.
Should Germany decide to take an even more active role in deciding the direction of the European Union, resistance will follow. But should Berlin abandon its role as the Continent's main political force, the bloc's already visible fault lines will continue to deepen.
While the European Union is unlike any political structure Europe has seen before, history offers a few interesting precedents of attempts to bring together multiple political entities. During the Holy Roman Empire — a multiethnic group of territories in Central Europe that existed between the early Middle Ages and the early 19th century — an elected emperor was supposed to rule over hundreds of small political entities that had different levels of wealth, power and autonomy. The system lasted for almost a thousand years for the simple reason that the emperor's powers were extremely limited and most of the time the participating entities were left alone.
The Holy Roman Empire proved to be incredibly durable, but it was also chaotic and ineffective. And in the few cases where the emperor tried to impose his will on the empire, revolt followed. The most notable example of this is the Thirty Years' War, which was partially the result of the emperor's attempt to impose Catholicism on Protestant lands.
The Habsburg Empire, an unofficial name for the multiple territories that were ruled by the Austrian branch of the House of Habsburg, offers a precedent of a slightly more institutionalized attempt to rule a multinational state. By the late 19th century, the empire included, among others, Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, Bosnians, Croatians, Poles, Serbians and Romanians, in addition to Muslims and Jews of different origins.
Unlike the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburgs ruled over peoples who, in the final years of the empire, had a clear notion of their national identities and resisted foreign control. In the early 20th century, a group of intellectuals close to Archduke Franz Ferdinand devised a plan to create the "United States of Greater Austria," a confederation of semi-autonomous and ethnically coherent states. The idea died with the archduke in 1914, and World War I led to the collapse of the empire. It is impossible to know whether the United States of Greater Austria would have worked, but it's fascinating to think that almost a century later intellectuals would discuss whether the "United States of Europe" would be viable.
The Next Phase
A key lesson from the Greek and migration crises is that a successful European Union cannot be built on threats to incompliant countries. Before the crisis, the promise of economic prosperity was the glue keeping the bloc together. To a certain extent, fear of the unknown and threats of retaliation have replaced prosperity as the force maintaining cohesion in Europe. This will progressively weaken Europe's balance of power and create more resistance to Germany's attempts, whether real or perceived, to control the European Union.
The big question is what the Continent will look like in a decade. There are basically three options. The first is that Europe will evolve into a true federation (the "United States of Europe"), with a central government in Brussels and member states that are no longer sovereign. The second option is more in line with the United Kingdom's view of Europe: a community of nations that are linked by free trade but preserve most of the features of the nation-state. The third option implies that Europe goes back to its pre-World War II status: a group of nation-states where cooperation and competition coexist in a power structure that is permanently changing and where conflict is always latent.
The federal option is virtually impossible in the current circumstances. The third option is also unlikely, because returning to a system of fully sovereign nation-states would require European populations to forsake the benefits of decades of integration.
The second option, or different versions of it, seems more probable. In recent months, basic tenets of the European Union, such as the free movement of people, have been put into question. The events of 2015 proved that it's not unthinkable that countries could leave the eurozone or temporarily reinstate trade barriers in times of deep crisis. It is also not unthinkable that countries could decide to protect different aspects of their sovereignty if they feel the European Union, or another member state, is threatening their strategic imperatives. One thing is certain, however: The current power structure in Europe is becoming harder to sustain.