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German and European Politics in Times of Disruption

Dr. Cornelius Adebahr, Political Analyst and Nonresident Fellow at Carnegie Europe, shared his talking points for his opening remarks during his recent tour of Warburg Chapters across the United States.

These days in Brussels, there is a minor disruption going on amid the wider, global unrest. Following the European election in May and the constitution of the new European Parliament in July, the President-elect of the European Commission has presented her team. While this does of course become an exercise in navel-gazing with questions of who-gets-what flurrying around the EU’s quarter, it is also a statement of where the Union stands. “The Woman, the Union, and Peace” is a triad that – turning classical realist assumptions about international relations on their head – can help explain the EU’s approach to global affairs over the coming years.

In a nutshell, the EU’s new executive branch led by German politician Ursula von der Leyen claims to be a “geopolitical Commission committed to sustainability,” combining both its green and its global outlook. Under the hashtag #EUstrivesformore, it aims to “work together to dispel fears and create new opportunities.” Beyond this rather lofty talk, at least one first achievement is quite visible: Von der Leyen, a Christian Democrat, achieved near-parity in gender terms, with 13 women out of 27 Commission members (herself included and without a British candidate). While the President was already elected by the European Parliament in one of its first sessions back in July, her proposal for the remaining 26 posts will be subject to parliamentary vetting and an en bloc confirmation before the Commission’s next term begins on November 1.

In more than one way, Ursula von der Leyen personifies the relationship between German and European politics in these turbulent times. First of all, with her own term lasting until 2024 and that of Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel ending in 2021, she will be the most prominent German on the world stage for the coming years. Secondly, not unlike the Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats governing in Berlin, she will have an even bigger coalition to steer with two Executive Vice-Presidents at her side, the Social Democrat Frans Timmermans from the Netherlands and the Liberal Margrethe Vestager from Denmark.

Lastly, von der Leyen will have to bring about at the European level the very fundamental transformation that the German government – in which she had served as a minister in various positions since 2005 until her elevation to the Commission top job – has failed to do at the national level: tackling climate change, mastering digitization, fending off populism, and much more. No small feat for someone who did not campaign for her current position but was chosen by the EU’s heads of state or government because none of the actual candidates could command cross-party support.

To understand what lies ahead, it is worthwhile to revert to one of the classical works of so-called realist thinking in international relations theory called “Man, the State, and War.” Published in 1959, Kenneth Waltz uses this conceptual trio to define three different levels of analysis (or “images,” in his words) to understand the sources of war. These can stem either from the individual and human nature, i.e., referring to a particular leadership type (think of Caesar or Napoleon); or from the nature of the state, such as a particularly expansive ideology (with both Communism and capitalism coming to mind); or – and this is Waltz’s main point – from the structure of the international system, which is anarchic by nature. This, he argues, is the main reason for war, relegating “man” and “state” to contributing factors.

The EU, of course, cannot change this nature of the international system; rather, some would argue that it is particularly unfit for the newly emerging world disorder. Yet with a woman at its helm and a Union of nation states at its core, the EU’s striving for peace makes for an interesting phenomenon – and puts it at quite the opposite end of a powerful political concept developed 60 years ago. So let’s take these points one by one and ask: Who is Ursula von der Leyen? What is the state of the Union today? And what is its role in the world?

The Woman

Ursula von der Leyen was actually born in the city which will now again be her home: in Brussels in 1958. Her father had just started to work for the newly created Commission of the European Economic Communities, the predecessor of today’s EU. She grew up in a multilingual environment, became a physician and a mother of seven, and at some point lived in California when her husband was a medical researcher at Stanford University.

She entered German national politics when Angela Merkel became Chancellor in 2005, serving as Minister for Family and Youth in Merkel’s first Grand Coalition government. One of her major legacies is the introduction of a parental allowance (“Elterngeld” in German) that incentivizes both parents to take time off after their child is born. She later became Minister of Labor and then Defense Minister, a little-liked position that usually has the incumbent leave amid a scandal. For von der Leyen, however, fate had it that Merkel’s “eternal successor” – who had already fallen out of favor – could pick the Commission job that the Chancellor had renounced.

Her nomination, despite being slated to become the first woman to serve as Commission President and only the second German since its founding President, Walter Hallstein, was nonetheless controversial. It was only because the three main parties – conservatives, liberals, and social-democrats – could not agree on either of their actual candidates that von der Leyen surfaced as a possible compromise, suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron rather than by Angela Merkel. These circumstances led her to passing the vote by the European Parliament with the slimmest majority ever (383 out of 747 votes) in July. Since then, however, she has presented an ambitious program centering on a European Green Deal, social fairness and prosperity, and digital opportunities. She also vowed to protect “our European way of life” and give European democracy a new push.

As it happens, she is set to assume office the day after the United Kingdom plans to leave the EU (October 31), so her leadership qualities will be immediately tested. Over the course of the next five years, much of her work will focus on renewing the political union while holding the club of 27 together.

The Union

It is no secret that the EU faces a number of internal and external challenges, from climate change and technological disruption to populist strands and the demographic realities of an aging continent. First and foremost, it is plagued by internal divisions, with populism being a major force that is eating up democracy from within, whether in the United Kingdom or in some central and eastern European member states. True, this is part of a worldwide trend, not least one that also divides the United States. However, the EU is particularly vulnerable precisely because it is not a state: Whereas populists in many countries also want to strengthen the state or the nation, the EU as a model for supra-national integration is one of their primary targets. Those who claim to “take back control” want to end the process of European integration, at least for their own country.

This has of course been most visible in the Brexit drama unfolding during these days. Not only has the recently appointed – not elected – Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his party’s already-slim majority and any of the votes it has called, his five-week suspension of Parliament has been deemed unconstitutional by Britain’s Supreme Court. Next to the fear of economic turmoil due to a no-deal exit from the EU, it is the evidence of democratic decline that is most concerning for other Europeans.

Similarly, authoritarian tendencies and a backsliding in the rule of law in some member states continue to be worrisome. While the EU has used existing procedures to reduce political influence over the judiciary in Poland or over the media in Hungary, its general weakness is that it has not yet found an effective way to deal with recalcitrant members. Of course, the Commission will go to the European Court of Justice if and when the EU Treaty is violated. Yet, more subtle transgressions are not so easily adjudicated, leaving a curbing of funds or the suspension of voting rights as unwelcome – and highly controversial – instruments.

Still, for all of its shortcomings, the EU remains a model – for supranational cooperation bringing peace and stability as much as for (relative) economic success with (mostly) democratic credentials. There is no single ideology beyond “the European Way,” which presents itself as some kind of a social-liberal market democracy. Instead, it’s the Union’s nature that makes it a different kind of – soft, smart, or normative – power. As a group of democracies, some bigger and some smaller (and all of them small by global standards), the EU is not made for bullying but rather thrives on mutually beneficial cooperation in a rules-based environment.


Without hyperbole, the EU can be considered a peace project. Born from the horrors and destruction of Europe’s “bloodlands” in the first half of the 20th century, it has since been striving for peace, within and without. Of course, for the first three to four decades, it could do so without actually being much involved in world politics, as the latter was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. However, with the bipolar world of the Cold War fading, the EU began to develop its own approach to what would still be the anarchic nature of the international system.

Having acquired formal foreign policy competences in the early 1990s – just when the Balkan wars were ravaging a part of Europe – it further developed its approach of “effective multilateralism” throughout the 2000s. As an economic power, the EU naturally focused on global trade and international fora like the World Trade Organization (WTO). It also became a frontrunner on global environmental policies, as enshrined in the Paris climate accord of 2015. And it even ventured into the field of hard security policy, such as when defending the nonproliferation regime in the negotiations with Iran over the country’s nuclear program.

Now, however, the Union faces a set of external challenges, whether from individual states or global phenomena like climate change and digitization. It is the three most powerful states in the world – the United States, China, and Russia – that pose threats of different kinds to the EU. While being an ally, Washington under its current leadership is seen as most critical, having acted as guarantor not only of peace and stability in Europe but also of the precise international order it helped create and sustain for more than 70 years.

Russia has been far more adversarial, having repeatedly violated this order and threatened to drive a wedge into European societies. Yet it is and will remain a neighbor of the EU, which therefore has to find a settlement with Moscow. China, in contrast, has only very recently been named a “strategic competitor” and a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance,” after nearly two decades of benevolent rapprochement.

Incidentally, this puts three out of five permanent members of the UN Security Council at odds with the EU’s approach to the world. Should post-Brexit Britain defect to populism, then only France would be left to represent European values – as defined by the EU – in this most important world body. This would only serve to vindicate those who had always thought of the “Anglo-Saxon” approach being different from a more narrowly conceived European civilization (led by France). It is obvious why this would put the Union under great stress.

Soul-searching is okay, but based on principles

What is the EU left to do in a world where old powers are straying and new powers emerging? With only 7 percent of the world’s population, a quarter of global economic power, but 50 percent of all social welfare, the EU has to boost its model of democracy and social market economy.

Admittedly, in times of disruption, everyone is looking for guidance. And just like those wishing to make their country “great again” may be looking at a particular past never to return, Europe, too, may be reproached for looking to the “glory days” of an international system that never looked so pleasant from any other vantage point. Taking the long view, this 70-year stretch of peace may be an anomaly that cannot be extended.

Yet Europe has no reason to go back to the old days of nationalism and great-power rivalry. True, the EU’s development was only possible because the United States shielded it from confrontations elsewhere in the world, but its underlying principles of cooperation across borders and based on rules and principles are very much worth preserving. There may be anarchy out there, but to respond in kind does not bring peace. And different from the United States surrounded by two oceans, the continent is open to the east as well as the south. It cannot retreat into its shell but has to engage its neighbors.

Doing so based on the exact opposite of Waltz’s categories – the Woman, the Union, and Peace – is not a bad starting point for the new European Commission. With a good grasp of the challenges ahead and a clear ambition to succeed, the next five years should see the EU finally find its global role – or possibly vanish from the scene. It would help if the United States could rejoin these efforts in due course, so that both partners can weather the global disruptions through renewed transatlantic cooperation.

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