In the wake of the showdown over the Greek debt crisis, Germany has wound up in the role of European bad guy. Germans ask if there's a way to make things better.
BERLIN — Not too long ago Europe was calling for Germany to take charge. Many European countries demanded that Chancellor Angela Merkel take the helm, bear the responsibility of managing the Eurozone's debt crisis, be a shining example of courageous leadership. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski shared that sentiment with this pithy quote back in 2011: "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear Germany inactivity."
But these voices have faded now. Much of the international media is condemning the stringent austerity conditions imposed upon Athens in the recent Eurozone negotiations. "It is not terrorists nor Euro-skeptics nor populists who are the biggest threat to Europe, it is Schäuble," wrote Portuguese daily Publico, referring to Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
Twitter was swamped by protests, using #ThisIsACoup and #BoycottGermany hashtags. The ghosts of the pasts have returned with thunderous style.
But the anger directed at Germany is not just based on historical events. "The (German) Federal Government is also responsible for the damaged image that Germany has to live with," says European studies expert Roderick Parkes, who used to head the Brussels branch of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
Parkes says leaders in Germany and elsewhere have had the illusion that cultural and political differences across Europe are easily surmountable. "Politicians are of the opinion that Europeans know and understand one another," he says, "but in reality we don't."
The reality requires a major new dose of what we call "public diplomacy," that is the conscious exchange between a state and the people of another nation. This may be done these days via social media outlets, such as Twitter or Facebook, or through articles published in newspapers. Official state visits as well as envoys and ambassadors who are promoting mutual understanding abroad are also part of public diplomacy.
Almut Möller, head of the Alfred von Oppenheimer Centre of European Policy Studies, has, since the beginning of the crisis, pointed out the importance of public diplomacy. "Berlin has to develop a convincing public diplomacy towards other states in crisis," says Möller.
German leaders cannot allow their country to be seen as being disinterested in the debate or only wanting to push through its own objectives behind closed doors.
Möller suggests that the Federal Government should approach opinion leaders in the media and EU think tanks to justify their positions during the financial crisis — and to also respond directly to any criticisms. "Why did representatives of the Federal Government or even the Chancellor herself not visit those countries that suffered most from the financial crisis?," asks Möller. "Where are the visible gestures of support during the ongoing reforms?"
The German government is aware of the importance of public diplomacy, but it now requires greater effort, especially from those in the top positions, to avoid the risk that more and more nations move away from the idea of a unified Europe. "There is a wider European public that German leaders have to address," Möller adds.
But beyond reaching out directly to the people of other countries, European diplomats have to do better at forging alliances to improve the chances of mutual comprehension. Parkses cites the so-called "Sauna Diplomacy" of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which he says is non-existent in Brussels nowadays. "Interpersonal relationships have lost their importance," he concludes.
How effective the occasional pat on the shoulder and public diplomacy really are is a disputable topic. "A smile or a kind gesture doesn't change anything," counters Swiss political scientist Dieter Freiburghaus. The "authenticity" of the Chancellor alone is decisive, and Merkel is indeed an authentic person. The press headlines and social media hysteria, however, do not convey an authentic picture of Europe.
Freiburghaus says countries such as Finland, the Netherlands and Austria are glad that they can hide behind Merkel's broad shoulders. And thus Germany's approach during a media thunderstorm is to don the waterproofs and let hostility simply wash over. "You cannot make difficult decisions and be loved for doing so at the same time," Freiburghaus says.