By Mark Leonard, ECFR

New polling shows that German citizens have begun to sour on the European project. If German politicians do not revise how they talk about Europe, this change could have disastrous consequences.

As Germany prepares for its federal elections in September, many are wondering what will come next. Under outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has become an “indispensable nation” in Europe and within the broader rules-based international order. The consensus is that she will be succeeded by someone offering more of the same. Her own anointed successor as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Armin Laschet, is indeed running on a continuity platform.

And yet, as Merkel prepares to retire, there are signs that Germans are growing tired of their country’s traditional role within the European Union. Although there is no danger of Germany leaving the bloc or falling into the hands of a Eurosceptic party, polls commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations show that German trust in the EU has collapsed during the covid-19 pandemic.

In 2019 and 2020, Germans expressed much more faith in the EU’s political system than French and Italian respondents did. But the European Commission’s poor performance during the pandemic seems to have changed their view. Some 55 per cent of Germans now think the EU’s political system is broken – a jump of 11 percentage points since last year. Whereas one in two Germans believed that the system was working as of November 2020, only 36 per cent do now, and 49 per cent claim to have “less” or “much less” confidence in the EU as a result of its vaccines policy. Around 33 per cent of Germans now think that EU integration has gone too far, compared to 23 per cent in 2020.

To be sure, these new figures come from just one poll, and sentiment toward the EU may well recover once most Germans are vaccinated. A series of ECFR polls in 2019 and 2020 showed Germans rallying in support of proposals that would remove long-standing hurdles to deeper European integration. But, if the recent loss of confidence persists, the long-term consequences could be serious. German leaders could come under increased public pressure to go it alone on policies ranging from vaccine procurement and migration to trade and energy.

After all, the world outside Germany is changing dramatically, bringing new threats to Germany’s status as an Exportweltmeister (export world champion). China and the United States have both recently embraced various forms of protectionism, and other EU member states wear the pursuit of narrow national interests as a badge of honour. With countries such as Hungary and Poland openly putting their own interests ahead of European solidarity, German politicians’ rhetoric about Europe risks sounding increasingly out of step. Why should Germany put Europe before itself when no one else is willing to do the same?

Germany’s populist politicians have already seized on this disconnect. Christian Lindner of the Free Democratic Party, for example, has aggressively opposed the mutualisation of European debt, and now says he will not join any putative coalition that puts the pro-EU Greens in charge of the finance ministry.

Although the world outside is changing, German foreign-policy elites still tend to look at European and international policy from the perspective of global obligations and the sacrifices needed to maintain solidarity. Given the country’s twentieth-century history, it is understandable that its leaders would want to avoid talking about national, rather than European, interests. But this failure to adapt brings risks of its own.

Many Germans have come to see their country’s European policy as a series of sacrifices that are meant to answer for historical crimes rather than make the country stronger, richer, and safer. This resentment could eventually boil over if German elites do not change their rhetoric. After the disastrous Trump presidency in the US, we all know what a revolt against the mainstream can look like.

Paradoxically, the best way to get Germans to commit to a pro-European cosmopolitanism is to make a patriotic case for it. By avoiding any talk of German patriotism, progressives have left a vacuum that the far right has been happy to fill with ultra-nationalism and xenophobia. But, with an outward-looking patriotic message, a new government could openly embrace the idea that Germany has national interests worth defending. And because these interests will inevitably be best served within a broader European context, such a change need not come at the EU’s expense.

In making the patriotic case for Europe, German politicians can point out that the choice is now between European sovereignty and no sovereignty at all. Germany will need to reorient its economic model to adapt to the ongoing digital and green revolutions. But it also needs to find ways to push back against protectionism, sanctions, and other great-power machinations – regardless of whether they come from friendly countries, such as the US, or less friendly ones, such as China.

From a European perspective, it is essential that Germany undergoes this transformation. What is true for the German economy is even more true for smaller economies. Other EU countries should not be threatened by an honest debate about Germany’s interests and what they imply for its Europe policy. The alternative, German disengagement, is far more dangerous.

The latest ECFR poll should serve as a warning that the German public may be falling out of love with Europe. An individual who contracts covid-19 can experience a short, acute phase of sickness but also a wide range of longer-term pathologies. The virus’s political effects should be thought of in the same way. In the short term, the pandemic provoked a strong immune response as Germans mobilised behind ambitious pan-European policies. But now the less-understood political effects of “long covid” are setting in. Unless the German political class finds a new approach to Europe, the EU will likely remain sclerotic and at risk of a protracted malaise.