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

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.