German politicians tacking to the wind of voters’ negative attitude to EU expansion
Nation following Swiss neighbour into ‘prosperity chauvinism’
Angela Merkel: supports Turkish entry as chancellor while opposing it as party leader
Perhaps it was the late hour or lack of air that prompted the outburst in Brussels. It was last Friday morning at 1am, and a weary chancellor Angela Merkel was briefing equally weary journalists about the progress of the June summit.
The dozing company jerked awake when they realised the German leader was being berated, politely but insistently, by a Croatian journalist. Why, he wanted to know, was Dr Merkel not flying to his country two days later to celebrate its entry into the EU as its 28th member?
The journalist said he’d heard there was a scheduling problem but he’d checked the German leader’s schedule for the Sunday and noted no official appointments.
Was her absence a sign of diplomatic displeasure at Croatia’s refusal to extradite to Germany Josip Perkovic, a former secret police chief accused of ordering the murder of a Croat dissident in 1983 in Bavaria?
Wearing a perplexed expression, Dr Merkel insisted her absence was merely a calendar conflict: she couldn’t attend the late-night party in Croatia on Sunday because of appointments in Berlin on Monday.
The small episode speaks volumes about the tensions between the EU’s newest and its largest member, and gives a taste of things to come.
‘Just another Greece’
Ahead of its July 1st accession, Croatia was put through the wringer by Germany’s fourth estate. Prime minister Zoran Milanovic found himself fending off the insinuations, such as from Focus magazine, that his country was “just another Greece”.
In an interview he protested against “all these stereotypes” and said his country, while not a rose garden, was certainly no Greece. Being outside the euro area meant a bailout or debt write-down was not an issue, he said, so “everyone should remain calm”.
Challenging his interviewer, Mr Milanovic suggested that today’s Germany was a “kind of large-scale Switzerland” – a “friendly economic giant without great political ambitions”. The comparison with Switzerland is interesting for more reasons than one.
For years, Swiss politics has been dominated by the mortal fear that everyone is angling for a slice of their cake. Amplified and exploited for political gain by the populist Swiss People’s Party, this “prosperity chauvinism” has spread across the border to Germany.
Though largely untouched by economic turbulence among its neighbours, Germany’s euro crisis narrative portrays euro bailouts and the permanent ESM bailout fund as hard evidence that it is being exploited by ne’er-do-well neighbours.
Any German benefits from the single currency are airbrushed out by most media outlets who, with a wave of their editorial wand, recast crisis loans and guarantees as cash gifts that are unlikely to be seen again.
German politicians have done little to correct these widespread views and, as they are beginning to set in voter minds, have instead adapted to the new mood of supercilious suspicion.
Croatia’s accession, agreed without referendum or even much public debate in Germany, is presented as a decision made by the European authorities, who know best. That the same authorities approved Greece’s euro entry does little to inspire confidence among Germans. Nor does German experience of Bulgarian and Romanian accession in 2007, triggering a flow of Roma into the country, what the federal interior minister and the German media dub “poverty refugees”.
Newspapers feature excitable reports about tower blocks in depressed German cities run by unscrupulous Romanian gangs to house hundreds of migrant Roma families. The reports cite statistics showing a 24 per cent year-on-year rise in migration from Romania and Bulgaria while forgetting to mention that most of these are highly qualified workers.
Looking forward, three future accessions now look uncertain. On Serbia, Berlin’s foreign minister annoyed his EU colleagues last week by insisting that preliminary talks could not proceed until the Bundestag had voted on the matter, pushing negotiations into the autumn.
On Turkey, Angela Merkel pursues a dialectical strategy: supporting accession talks in her role as chancellor while, as leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), opposing Ankara’s hopes of ever joining the bloc.
On Kosovo, German politicians in Brussels agree it has been given a European perspective while telling voters at home that the EU has reached its limits.
Croatia’s EU accession marks the end of an era when the biggest challenge to EU membership was bedding down in national law the acquis communautaire, Europe’s 80,000-page rulebook.
In future, however, prospective members face an additional, arbitrary hurdle in Germany, where politicians and media warn put-upon voters to be wary of having another European mouth to feed.