Over the past decades, EU budget negotiations have been an issue of relatively little public attention in Germany. One might go so far and say that beyond the circles of the government, interest groups, and a handful of ‘connaisseurs’ at think tanks, they went down unnoticed. By and large, this was a reflection of the solid support of the German public for Germany’s EU membership, and of EU policies being largely uncontroversial.
This time however, things are set to be different. Negotiations for the next multi-annual financial framework (MFF) of the European Union will happen in a different domestic environment. Germans are increasingly asking ‘what is in it for us?’. No doubt, Germany is among the countries that benefit most from the EU and Eurozone membership. However, the past years of crises have not left the EU debate in the country unaffected. During the Eurozone crisis, Germans by and large felt that Germany was helping the crisis-ridden countries, in particular Greece, thereby demonstrating their solidarity. This is a one sided-view, but also one that is important to be noticed. Another pattern of perception appeared during the migration crisis when the EU as a whole and some particular members denied a helping hand to Berlin. Lastly, concerns about the development of democracy and the rule of law in EU Member States (particularly Poland and Hungary) brought up the question of ‘for whom do we really want to pay?’ in a hitherto unprecedented way.
While a solid majority of Germans fundamentally believe EU membership is a good thing, politicians increasingly feel the pressure to explain their choices about core EU policies. This is not in the least because the eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party entered the Bundestag in September 2017, and now constitutes the largest opposition group in parliament. The government therefore is confronted with a political force aiming to stir an anti EU mood in the country.
Against this background, the federal government, a renewed version of the ‘grand coalition’ of Conservatives (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) with Chancellor Merkel withher fourth term in office, will have to demonstrate to the German public that it is bringing in line its articulated support and ambition for a strong and united EU with a financial framework that reflects the policies Berlin considers vital in this regard. In other words: to put the money where the mouth is.
Berlin advocates a modernisation of the EU budget for the next financial cycle in light of a new set of challenges to the Union and its members. Furthermore, the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU means that a major contributor to the EU budget will be leaving, and Germany will be among the Member States that will have to extend their contribution to the budget. It is not an impossible task keeping in mind the public’s opinion, but it is still not going to be an easy battle. Therefore, the outgoing as well as the new grand coalition have made it clear on a number of occasions that Germany was in principle willing to step up its financial engagement but underlines the importance of a fair burden sharing of EU members, and of better spending.
In their joint reaction to Commissioner Oettinger’s proposal for the new MFF in May 2018, the Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and the Finance Minister Olaf Scholz argued that for a real departure into the future the EU would have to step up its capacity for innovation, strengthen internal and external security (i.e. external border control – a subject vital to the country that was at the heart of the refugee management crisis), and invest more in foreign and defence policies (where Germany is on the spot to meet expectations about a stronger international engagement). The ministers also restated there should be a link between financial benefits from the EU budget on the one hand and the Union’s values and the rule of law on the other; an issue that is also likely to resonate more with the public in the coming months over the developments in Central and Eastern European countries, especially in Poland and Hungary.
Overall, the German negotiating position in the coming months will have to be read much more than in the past through the lens of German domestic politics. Finally, one might argue, the German public is awakening to exercise its democratic control over EU politics – which, with hindsight, might become the lever for the coalition government to help engineer a long overdue overhaul of the structure of the EU budget.
*Almut Möller- senior policy fellow and the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) Berlin office.