Germany - the EU’s 'exceptional nation' - sees no need for change

The country's voters show little desire to proactively seek a resolution to the euro crisis.

What’s so special about Germany, anyway? Throughout the euro crisis, Merkel and her colleagues have been at pains to remind the rest of the world that Germany is a eurozone country like any other. It is subject to the same rules as the rest of Europe and faces many of the same challenges. Germans are neither comfortable with being Europe’s hegemon (a "foreign concept", according to Merkel), nor do they have the means to fulfil that role. Germany is, as the Chancellor recently stated, "not the richest country", and they do not think the 'periphery' is so poor as to be incapable of self-help. Through German eyes, their relative economic position today results from shrewd choices they made before the crisis. The 'periphery' must now follow suit.

However, despite Merkel’s protestations, German public opinion shows acute awareness of its position as Europe’s exceptional nation. Germans are well aware of their superior economic position vis-a-vis the rest of the continent. According to the Eurobarometer, the EU’s largely ignored survey of its citizens, 77% think the national economy is doing well versus 26% who think the same of the European economy. Furthermore, as the chart below shows, while Germany may be subject to European rules, there is widespread acknowledgement that they are setting them, or at least driving the policy debate.

The Eurobarometer vividly illustrates the extent to which Germany has deviated from the rest of the eurozone since the crisis began (only Austrians and Finns join Germans in viewing their national economy positively). The survey also shows the degree to which the policy-response to the crisis has been asymmetric. When asked which issues were of most importance to their country, Germans named debt, closely followed by inflation. Conversely, citizens from France and the 'peripheral' countries worry about jobs significantly more than deficits. Eurozone policy has focused almost exclusively on the needs of Germany and the other creditor nations. The chart below, which shows citizens in the 'periphery' feeling largely ignored, reflects this fact, and perceptions of their national economies could barely be worse. French opinion seems to be going the same way. The divergence hints at greater political tension in the euro area – unless policy can be diverted onto a more conciliatory path.

Country interests taken into account in the EU

So what do the Germans want to do with their new-found dominance? Despite being the only country with political capital to spare, the results of the Eurobarometer suggest the political imperative in Germany points worryingly to the status quo. Germans are ultimately satisfied with their economic situation and position of power within the eurozone. Equally, they show little desire to proactively seek a resolution: when asked about eurobonds, Germans are far and away the biggest opponents in the single currency – whereas most of their neighbours support the idea.

In a recent speech, Niall Ferguson argued that Germany is increasingly conforming to the image of its 19th century national personification, 'Deutsche Michel'. Michel, "the victim of unscrupulous neighbours, who picked his pockets and stole the shirt off his back", caricatured Germans’ perception of themselves as an exceptional nation in a continent of poorer, scrounging neighbours. The results of the Eurobarometer graphically illustrate these very fears. The question is whether, following September’s election, Angela Merkel will be willing to reach deeper into Michel’s pockets.

Angela Merkel speaks to supporters during a CDU election campaign rally on August 15, 2013 in Bremen, Germany. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Hessel is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.