Angela Merkel’s new year’s resolution: fresh EU air

Demands for progress on European integration come amid German foot-dragging on policy

Angela Merkel’s new year’s resolution, she told German television viewers this week, was the same as every year: to get more fresh air.

But German neighbours hoping for political fresh air from Berlin in 2014 may be in for a disappointment. The chancellor's third-term government, another grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party, enjoys a four-fifths parliamentary majority in the Bundestag. But the German leader has given no indication of harbouring any large ambitions to match her new political clout – at home or in EU affairs.

Merkel told German viewers she was anxious to see the EU work through its to-do list ahead of May’s European election, demonstrating greater “readiness to put into practice what we have resolved to do”.

But these demands are at odds with the reputation German officials are earning in Brussels – as brakers, rather than drivers, of big policy issues.


Data protection
Take the data protection debate. For years EU leaders and officials have haggled over how to drag Europe's existing data protection directive – dating back to the internet stone-age of the 1990s – into the modern era of Google, Facebook and smartphones.

During the summer, faced with revelations about US National Security Agency spying, Merkel promised Berlin would work “with vigour” to secure agreement on harmonised European data protection rules.

Amid unprecedented lobbying from internet giants and ongoing NSA spying revelations, however, Britain watered down a commitment to agree on the new regulation before May’s European elections. Now senior Brussels officials complain that Germany’s interior ministry is holding back final agreement with last-minute concerns and demands for further changes.

Berlin says it is “not realistic the idea that one country can put the brakes” on the data protection deal.

"Germany is not building up ever-higher hurdles, instead it has always spoken in favour of a differentiated regulation," said an interior ministry spokesman.

Brussels officials say it is late but not too late for the regulation to be passed before the May deadline, but a Berlin official said yesterday that this was no longer likely.

Germany is quick to brush off similar go-slow claims it faces on other policy areas, such as banking union.

Agreement on final details was reached after late-night sittings last month, but only after dealing with sizeable German concerns. Even now, Dublin officials suggest their Berlin counterparts remain disingenuous on proposals to allow direct recapitalisation of Irish banks via the ESM bailout fund.

After months in electoral limbo, Berlin-watchers are optimistic new Franco-German initiatives, such as efforts to boost European competitiveness, can counteract a lethargy they see in German EU policy on everything from defence to energy issues.

"The Germans blame the French and others that dossiers can't be advanced but, all over Europe, you hear that it's the Germans blocking," says Dr Ulrike Guérot, senior fellow with the Open Society Initiative for Europe.

“Nobody in office here seems to want to deal with the European agenda any more.”

Instead, the Berlin debate is increasingly dominated by voices querying the costs and benefits to Germany of European integration.

Days before Germany belatedly opened its labour market to Bulgaria and Romania on January 1st, Horst Seehofer, leader of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), vowed to "boot out" welfare cheats from Germany.

Experts dismiss his remarks as a populist attempt to inflate existing regional problems – largely with Roma and other minorities – into a looming national crisis. Yet Seehofer has, with little effort, single-handedly placed this hot-button issue on the political agenda before March local elections in Bavaria.

Eurosceptic CSU
Though smaller than Merkel's own Christian Democratic Union, the CSU is louder and more Eurosceptic. It is likely to outdo itself on this front in the run-up to May's EU elections after electing as deputy leader Peter Gauweiler, an MP who has challenged every EU treaty and policy of note before Germany's constitutional court.

Facing tough competition from two new Eurosceptic parties, an energetic Eurosceptic campaign headed by Gauweiler could, in turn, colour other local election campaigns as well as three state polls in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg.

A heated debate on migration will only harden Berlin’s resolve to oppose calls for reform of asylum-seeker regulations after last October’s drowning of 300 African refugees off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Last month Merkel called on EU member states to embrace deeper European integration as a response to the euro crisis and, somewhat defensively, dismissed claims that Berlin was a hindrance to this ambition.

Her third term will show whether she succeeds in tackling a growing euro-critical chorus to seize the political initiative again, or whether her European ambitions go the way of her perennial resolution to get more fresh air.

“It’s one of the classics,” she told her television audience, “then comes the new year and the daily grind has us again.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin