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Spain can play a decisive role in Germany’s new European awakening

Jeremy Cliffe

5 mins - 31 de Agosto de 2022, 17:39

German leaders have a habit of making nice-sounding assurances that they understand Europe’s need for greater geopolitical ambition, fiscal unity and structural reform. Amid the initial Russian assault on Ukraine in 2014, for example, then foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier insisted Germany must assume more “concrete” responsibility. In 2017 Angela Merkel told a crowd in a Munich beer tent that the time for a more self-reliant Europe had arrived. Olaf Scholz hailed a “Zeitenwende” or historical turning point following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year.

Yet these nice-sounding words often do not turn into meaningful action. Steinmeier continued to champion German dependence on Russian gas after 2014. Merkel’s 2017 epiphany did not prompt her to give any substantial answer to Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne University that same year setting out a bold plan for European sovereignty. And in the months following the Zeitenwende speech, Scholz has been accused of slow or reluctant acceptance of the new realities of this new era. 

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Now, however, things might be different. In a speech on 29 August at the Charles University in Prague, the German chancellor demonstrated an unusual depth of vision and detail. He made a sweeping argument about the state of Europe today and in the future, and spelled out what this would mean. The EU would one day have 30 or even 36 members, he said, including not just the Western Balkans but Ukraine and Georgia. That would require major structural change like a shift from unanimity votes to qualified-majority voting, including on foreign policy and tax, and limits on the sizes of the European Parliament and European Commission.

Ranging across economic sovereignty, fiscal policy, the climate, technology, defence and security, he backed new measures to penalise leaders like Viktor Orbán who infringe the union’s core values and called for a more geopolitical Europe including new European air defence and an EU military HQ. He backed pro-investment reforms to the EU’s fiscal rules and indicated openness to new programmes backed by common borrowing. It was the reply to Macron’s Sorbonne speech that Merkel never gave. 

Will it translate into real action? In truth, Germany never entirely stood still. Under Merkel it gradually crept towards more responsibility and EU reform, but usually painfully slowly (with the obvious exception of the EU recovery fund, agreed in the extreme crisis conditions of summer 2020). Yet Europe has ever-less time for such caution from its biggest economic power. Year-by-year its share of the global economy is shrinking and its technological lag behind the US and China is growing. The invasion of Ukraine has shown how heavily the EU still relies on American power for its security, making it highly vulnerable to a second Trump presidency from 2025. So, yes, the Prague speech was good, but it has to be just the beginning of something bigger.

And there, Spain can play an important role. On August 30, Scholz hosted Pedro Sánchez at a meeting of the German federal cabinet at his country retreat of Schloss Meseberg. It was an illustration of the good state of Berlin-Madrid relations: the invitation to attend the cabinet is a rare honour, the meeting covered topics of close alignment between the two governments (specifically the proposed trans-Pyrenean gas pipeline), and it also illustrated Spanish influence on German policy (Berlin has come to support Madrid’s longstanding calls to overhaul the EU energy market).

Yet the relationship matters in a more fundamental sense too. More than is fully appreciated outside Germany, Europe’s biggest economy feels uncomfortable about its size and weight. Even three decades after reunification, it remains uncertain about its restored role at the heart of Europe. It can easily feel lonely. And important though the German-French relationship is, French leaders like Macron operate in a system very different from the German one - more centralised and less pluralistic - and sometimes alienate their Teutonic counterparts.

In various aspects of state structure and political landscape, Germany and Spain are more alike than either is to France (or for that matter Italy or Poland, the other two members of the EU’s big five). Sánchez, like Scholz, is a social democrat leading a government that draws support from a broad base stretching from the political centre to the left. The two can look eye-to-eye. Especially under its current government, then, Spain has a unique ability to work with Germany as Europe adapts to demanding new realities. Spain can help reassure it, stimulate its thinking and encourage it on to greater levels of ambitionAt the German-Spanish summit in October the goal should be not just continued cooperation but the foundation of a new “special relationship” in Europe

So yes, Scholz’s speech needs to be the start something bigger. But so too must his meeting the following day with his Spanish counterpart. 

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