Threat to the EU: German Exceptionalism Poses a Challenge

A Commentary by Bruce Stokes

Germany has a vastly different view of the EU than the rest of the bloc. Zoom
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Germany has a vastly different view of the EU than the rest of the bloc.

Southern Europeans have grown impatient with Germany's self-imposed role as Europe's iron fist in recent months, but their criticism seems to have left the majority of Germans unfazed. A new study reveals the growing rift in public opinion on the state of the European Union.

The euro crisis has exposed a range of intra-European problems long hidden from the harsh light of day. Not the least of these is German exceptionalism. Over the last two generations one goal of the European project has been to narrow the differences between Germany and the rest of Europe. But recent economic difficulties have only amplified those dissimilarities.

The contrast between German sentiment today and that of other Europeans could not be more stark, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of eight European Union nations. Germans feel better than others about the economy (by 66 points over the EU median), about their personal finances (by 26 points), about the future (by 12 points), about the European Union (by 17 points), about European economic integration (by 28 points) and about their own leadership (by 48 points). And in some cases - in their attitudes about the economy and about the EU - these differences between German and other European sentiment are growing.

Such German exceptionalism may only complicate Europe's efforts to deal with its current troubles because Germans have different concerns, different priorities and favor different solutions.

High Hopes for the Economy

Not surprisingly given Germany's relatively good overall economic performance in the last year, the economy and Germans' sentiment about economic issues is what most prominently sets them apart from other Europeans. Three-quarters (75 percent) of the German population thinks their national economy is doing well, compared with nine percent in the rest of Europe who feel good about domestic economic conditions.

Germans are also less concerned about individual economic problems than are other Europeans. Just 28 percent of Germans think the lack of employment opportunities is a very big problem compared with a median of 80 percent in other EU nations. Only 37 percent of Germans fret about public debt. Fully 71 percent of their fellow Europeans are very concerned. And 31 percent of Germans are very worried about inflation, while 68 percent of others are.

What Germans (51 percent) are most worried about is the growing gap between the rich and the poor. They want fixing this problem to be the Berlin government's priority economic concern. No other European people place such an emphasis on reducing inequality.

Calls for a Stronger Europe

It is the growing gulf between Germans' perception of the European Union and the sentiment of other Europeans that may pose the greatest threat to the European Project.

Belief that economic integration would strengthen national economies was the founding principle of what became the European Union. And 54 percent of Germans still hold to that belief. In no other European country does a majority now agree.

Similarly, 60 percent of Germans look favorably on the European Union as an institution. While such positive sentiment is down eight points in Germany since 2007, that decline is the smallest of any nation surveyed. Moreover, about half of the Germans (51 percent) would like to see Brussels have more decision-making power to deal with Europe's economic woes. Nowhere else in Europe is the public so supportive of centralizing more power in the European Union.

Cultural Bias Clash

If anything, the euro crisis has only reinforced cultural stereotypes that other Europeans have about Germans and that Germans have about their fellow Europeans.

The prominent role Germany has played in Europe's response to the euro crisis has evoked decidedly mixed emotions. In six of the eight nations surveyed people see the Germans as the least compassionate people in Europe. And publics in five of the eight countries think Germans are the most arrogant.

In the wake of the strict austerity measures imposed in Greece, which many Greeks blame on Berlin, Greek enmity toward the Germans knows little bound. Greeks consider the Germans to be the least trustworthy, the most arrogant and the least compassionate.

At the same time, in every country, except Greece, people consider Germans to be the most trustworthy. This comports with the 2012 Pew Research finding that most other Europeans thought the Germans were the hardest working and the least corrupt of Europeans.

No Room for Self-Doubts

The Germans bear their own preconceptions that separate them from their neighbors. They think the Greeks and the Italians are the least trustworthy, that the French are the most arrogant and that the British are the least compassionate.

Self-criticism is also in short supply. Germans, like every other nationality surveyed, see themselves as the most compassionate people in Europe. They also see themselves as the least arrogant and the most trustworthy.

Germany's economic dynamism, its geographic centrality and its history have long posed problems for Europe. And now it is the exceptionalism of German public opinion that is a challenge. As Europeans struggle to jointly overcome the euro crisis, the burgeoning differences between German attitudes and those held by people in the rest of Europe complicate the quest for common ground in the face of Europe's current existential threat.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

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About Bruce Stokes
Bruce Stokes is the director of the Pew Research Center's Global Economic Attitudes. He also writes a column on international economics for the National Journal, the Washington-based public policy magazine and is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow for Economics at the German Marshall Fund.

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