A leader by default? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 20.06.2016
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A leader by default?

A new survey ahead of the Brexit vote shows Germans feel more confident over their country's global role. This comes as most Europeans fear a loss of national influence.

Opinions can shape international politics at least as much as facts. That's one lesson that can already be drawn from the Brexit debate. Given the fact that fears of a newly ascendant Germany have helped fuel the campaign for Brexit, its proponents should take heed of the opinions voiced in a new pan-European poll that does in fact reveal a growing sense of self-confidence in Germany.

According to the US-based Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Germans think their country has become more important over the past decade. That is a higher share than in any of the other EU countries polled. This new German confidence goes against an overall European trend: from France to Italy and Britain, those polled tend to see their respective countries' international influence shrinking.

Germany's disconnect with its allies even stretches across the Atlantic, where 46 percent of Americans believe their country is now less powerful than a decade ago. The Pew study group's director of global economic attitudes sees Germany as the exception to a generalized sense of loss of national power. Fact-based or not - it's a sentiment that unsurprisingly resonates with the "Britain First" as well as Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaigns.

Strongman or gentle giant?

So is this unfiltered public opinion an indication of naked power ambition on the part of the German public?

Six out of 10 Germans may see their country playing a bigger role on the world stage, but when it comes to using that power, more than two-thirds want allies' interests taken into account - even if that means compromising Germany's own interests. With more than two-thirds willing to compromise on foreign policy, Germans come across as the most diplomatic of the Europeans surveyed. Greece marks the other end of the spectrum with a mere 19 percent willing to sacrifice national interest, compared to an EU-wide share of 44 percent.

These answers come as a surprise to the Green Party politician and member of the German parliament's Committee on Foreign Relations, Jürgen Trittin. Currently in opposition, he sees the poll as a sign that "the German public is ready for Germany to take on more responsibility." But that "should not mean more tanks" he warns - hinting at the defense ministry plans to increase military spending.

"Germany's most important 'soft power' is a European one: Economic power stemming from democratic rule of law." Be it the migration crisis, economic woes or the fight against terrorism, Trittin cautions, "no country can go it alone." If they do, "the problem will come right back in through the back door."

In or out - A daily struggle?

There seems to be broad recognition among Europeans that national approaches are of limited effectiveness. Three-quarters say they would like the EU to play a more active role in world affairs than it does today. Pew's Bruce Stokes sees a correlation to the perceived loss of national importance: "We think this might be an interaction of people thinking their country is less powerful, plays less of a role but at the same time they want to be associated with something that plays a big role in the world." Stokes also sees it as a sign that there "still is this aspirational quality" to Europe in the sense that many people do believe the EU can bring peace and stability.

Yet despite Europeans' apparently lofty expectations, the EU remains notoriously unpopular. Its performance over the migration crisis is perceived to be disastrous: 64-94 percent of Europeans say they are "unhappy" with the way this has been handled in Brussels.

EU citizens are divided over whether it's time to take a tough stance on Russia over Ukraine or whether economic interests should drive the relationship with Moscow.

In general, there are no majorities for handing more national power to Brussels. One of the few things most Europeans seem able to agree on is that they would like to deal with their own problems and leave others to deal with theirs. Here too, Germany is the exception: Unlike other Europeans, a majority of Germans (53 percent), Swedes (51 percent), and Spaniards (55 percent) put the emphasis on helping others. Pew's poll shows that overall "Europeans are currently just as inward looking and unilateralist as the US's, while "Germans tend to be more outward looking and more multilateralist than both the EU as a whole or the US at this point in time."

Europe's Franco-German motor running on empty

Crucially, Germans are currently on a very different European page than the French - a potentially toxic state of affairs for European integration. The strong axis between Paris and Berlin has traditionally held at bay the much-cited gravitational forces that could tear the EU apart. The importance of this key alliance has only risen as the EU grew from six to 28 member states.

But the divisions between Paris and Berlin are widening. With a looming Brexit vote and anti-European sentiment mutating into nationalist populism in several EU countries - not least France and Germany - the timing could hardly be worse.

Where fear fails to unite

Europeans are united in their fear of global terrorism. They remain divided on how to respond to this threat. Notably, the countries directly hit by terrorist attacks, France, Spain, Norway and Britain, are most divided over the question whether using military force is the best way to respond. That sentiment is echoed in the US, where public opinion is evenly split at 47 percent for and 47 percent against military force as the primary response to terrorism. "We are not the cowboys you think we are," Stokes said.

So what can unite the EU if the fear of a common enemy can't? Jürgen Trittin cites the "simple truth" that these great challenges cannot be solved unilaterally. If "Europe becomes synonymous with austerity, there will be more of the same," he warned, referring to the divisive rhetoric seen in the Brexit campaign. Europeans have expressed to the Pew pollsters what amount to contradictory expectations of the European Union. Politicians know that not all these expectations can be met.

This calls for strong leadership in Brussels - leadership that goes beyond temporary fixes to the long-term challenges that have Europeans worried that not only their own countries, but Europe as a whole may soon find itself playing a drastically diminished role in an increasingly turbulent world.

All data courtesy of Pew Research Center, 2016 global attitudes survey, "Europeans face the world divided."

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