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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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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