German Europe by Ulrich Beck, translated by Rodney Livingstone

May 16, 2013

Ulrich Beck, a sociologist, begins this book with Thomas Mann’s well-known injunction to a student audience in Hamburg in 1953 to strive for “not a German Europe, but a European Germany”. One measure of the degree to which today’s European Union can be seen as the former is that, even though two decades ago Germany lost the central argument about the introduction of a common currency, its economic clout has produced an Economic and Monetary Union that is essentially the kind it wanted. In the long-running dispute between the two camps simplistically labelled “monetarist” and “economist”, the former - led by François Mitterrand, then president of France, and Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission - argued that an early fusion of national currencies would powerfully promote the convergence of disparate national economies. Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor of Germany, took the “economist” position that the replacement of national currencies by the euro should come only after the discrepancies between Europe’s stronger and weaker economies had already been reduced. Kohl gave way on this point, but in today’s Europe, Germany has a decisive voice in everyone’s economic and social policies.

As Beck rightly stresses, this is not because of any German urge to dominate Europe like a “Fourth Reich” but reflects the hard economic facts: Germany is the EU’s biggest and most successful economy, and those needing German help must expect it to come on German terms. Beck is roundly critical of some of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s attitudes - her frequent delays in taking action lead him to dub her “Merkiavelli” - but he allows that, although narrow-minded, she is well intentioned. Recipients of German bailouts, as she sees it, would do well to follow Germany’s fairly recent example of overcoming severe economic difficulties by restraint and self-discipline.

Beck’s main quarrel thus lies not with the fact of Germany’s dominant position but with the nature of the policies that the Merkel government is currently forcing the EU to pursue. Instead of a Europe of austerity, savage expenditure cuts and growing economic and social inequality, he wants a “social democratic Europe”, meeting the needs and respecting the rights of Europe’s “people”.

His proposals for getting from here to there come as a wide scatter of ideas; often stimulating but not always coherent. In the background is his view that discussion of European integration, both theoretical and practical, has been unduly dominated by lawyers and political scientists, and that sociologists, with few exceptions, have been wrong to keep quiet. For Beck, what Europe needs now is not yet more legalistic fiddling with the powers of the European Parliament or the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, but a sociological insight into the needs and views of Europe’s people, an insight to “bring society back in”.

It is not clear, however, which social groups Beck hopes to mobilise for the great project of a just and relevant Europe. At one point he seems to expect “furious Greeks, unemployed Spaniards, worried Germans” to unite in a shared passion for fairness and reconciliation. Elsewhere he seems to envisage a vast coalition stretching from young street demonstrators (seen as the vanguard of a “European Spring”) all the way to the more enlightened “Europe builders” holding high office in Brussels. He even suggests that Merkel herself (perhaps in coalition with the Social Democrats, after September’s election) and the global banking fraternity might undergo a conversion to his views. In short, this fiery political tract, while it makes some thought-provoking observations, falls some way short of a persuasive programme for reforming a manifestly troubled Europe.

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