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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder