U.S.-Germany The Reluctant Leader

Germany has always been reluctant to admit that it is the de facto leader of the European Union. The Handelsblatt Global Edition Roadshow looks at the consequences and implications of this reticence.
The New America NYC and the Walter Eberstadt World Economic Policy Program at the World Policy Institute, hold a World Economic Roundtable on Europe and Germany's Economy: New Stresses and Strains. With Publisher Gabor Steingart (centre) and editor in chief Kevin O'Brien (2nd from left)

Can Germany Really Lead Europe?Fireworks flew at a debate hosted by the World Economic Roundtable in New York on Wednesday, with U.S.-based economists from various schools of thought challenging and questioning whether Germany has what it takes to lead Europe out of a series of current crises.

It’s a question that has come up repeatedly throughout Handelsblatt’s 10-day road trip through New York and Washington, especially when it comes to the most recent refugee crisis facing Europe. But rarely has the debate been more blunt and impassioned than at a packed gathering of some 50 economists and fund managers from the United States, Europe and other regions.

“What does Germany stand for today?” asked Emmanuel Petrakis of Rhode Capital. “From what I hear, you want to have your cake and eat it too.”

Bearing the brunt of the ire was Handelsblatt’s publisher Gabor Steingart, who aggressively defended his own country’s prescriptions for how to get the European Union back on a stable growth path.

Much of the arguments revolved around good old-fashioned economic differences - a long-running debate between German, U.S., British, French and other schools of economic thought that was unlikely to be settled during a two-hour long discussion in New York. What the debate did highlight, however, is that the feelings on both sides are as raw as ever.

A number of U.S.-based economists accused Germany of not necessarily having Europe’s interests at heart for much of the past few years by continuing to run large trade surpluses, showing little understanding of the plight of southern Europe and opposing efforts by the European Central Bank’s efforts to ease monetary policy further.

“You’re not obeying the rules,” said Robert Brusca of FAO Economics, who called on the ECB to do more to boost its balance sheet. Mr. Brusca accused Germany of arguing for a rules-based union on the one hand but ignoring rules when it comes, for example, to the ECB’s own mandate and credibility in the face of weak inflation. “This is crazy!” he said.


Robert Brusca of FAO Economics makes a point.


Mr. Steingart argued that those who advocate for a more aggressive monetary policy had actually won the battle of ideas at the ECB over the last few years – Germany was repeatedly voted down - but their prescriptions had failed to turn the situation around.

“Your policies are in charge and that’s what is not working,” he said in response to the monetary-policy doves at the table. “We believe that economic growth doesn’t come from this way of thinking. If there is no underlying innovation, you cannot simply push money into the marketplace.”

The irony: Many of Germany’s critics said they would like to see more leadership from Europe’s largest economy. The question is what form that leadership should take. Tom Ferguson of the New Institute of Economic Thought accused Germany of ignoring the plight of the periphery, both in southern Europe and further afield in northern Africa or the Middle East.

“I don’t get what German leadership is doing here. How are you going to stabilize two peripheries?” Mr. Ferguson asked.

Mr. Steingart acknowledged that Germany is isolated in Europe today and has been outvoted on a number key issues facing the continent. But he argued the country is reluctant to take up a stronger leadership role unless it can convince neighbors to abide by German principles such as the importance of saving and abiding more strongly to budget discipline.

“Germany would like to take a greater leadership role… but it comes with certain principles,” Mr. Steingart said.


Kevin O'Brien, Handelsblatt Global Edition editor in chief, and Lea Steinacker of Wirtschaftswoche present the Handelsblatt YouGov G20 survey.



Many people in Europe were reminded once again on Tuesday morning that the world is a dangerous place.

The Brussels attacks, looming large over the day’s events, shone a very different light on Handelsblatt’s exclusive survey of all G20 countries.

A press conference at the Newseum in Washington to present the results began with a minute of silence for the victims of the Brussels attacks, which earlier Tuesday killed at least 30 people in explosions at the city’s airport and a major subway station.

Once the event started, the Brussels attacks also changed the focus of the debate. The biggest question in Handelsblatt’s survey, which polled 1,000 people in each of the world’s 20 leading economies, was supposed to be one based on politics: Who would the world’s citizens vote for in the U.S. presidential elections if they had the choice? The answer, in 18 of 20 countries, is Hillary Clinton.

The results showed that the U.S. elections are “an issue which matters not just to the Americans,” said Gabor Steingart, Handelsblatt’s publisher, but added: “While it is important who will be the U.S. presidential nominee, it is not the most important issue in the world.”

Given the day’s events, attention quickly turned to more fundamental questions involving people’s hopes and fears: What are the world’s biggest problems? Where do citizens see their economy and their own economic situation in three years?

The answer: Even before Tuesday’s attacks, Handelsblatt’s poll found that 66 percent of people from all corners of the globe continue to see the prospect of war and terrorism as their top concern – above worries like the economy, inequality, climate change or the influx of refugees.


From left to right: Jeffrey Gedmin, senior fellow at Blue Star Strategies, Anne Gammon, associate director of YouGov, Handelsblatt Publisher, Gabor Steingart, Kevin O'Brien and Lea Steinacker.


The scope of the opinion poll was a novelty in itself. Anne Gammon, associate director of YouGov, which conducted the survey on behalf of Handelsblatt, said most earlier surveys have involved one or two countries at the most. “20 countries in one study is almost unheard of,” she noted.

That scope offered a window into how different countries think about the same issues.

Handelsblatt Global Edition editor in chief Kevin O’Brien, presenting the survey results, noted that war and terrorism were rated the top concern by nearly all G20 countries. The only exception was China, which chose the environment. Terrorism and war were the biggest worry across all ages and genders, Mr. O’Brien noted.

Economic worries are also high around the globe. Mr. O’Brien pointed out that western nations in particular were more likely to believe that the global economy will deteriorate rather than improve over the next three years. Emerging economies like India, China and Indonesia were the only countries that, on balance, believed things will get better rather than worse.

Most people are only slightly more optimistic about their personal situation: 34 percent said they were “fairly satisfied” with their own economic situation, but 59 percent said they were “fairly dissatisfied.”

There were, however, some interesting discrepancies pointed out by the panel. Germans, for example were among the most pessimistic about the global economy but among the most optimistic about their own personal situation, Mr. O'Brien noted. The Chinese were the opposite: Hopeful about the global economy but not their own fortunes.

The results also highlighted some differences between age groups around the world. One of the clearest examples: Asked which world leader is trusted the most, those under 55 chose U.S. President Barack Obama. Those above 55? Pope Francis.

“Different age groups clearly have different priorities,” argued Lea Steinacker, in charge of digital platforms for the German business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, who co-presented the results.


Solidarity With Brussels

The Brussels attacks hung ominously over Handelsblatt's meeting with the Atlantic Council and its vice president, Dr. Frances Burwell.


The attacks in Brussels, in which more than 30 people were killed and dozens more injured in several explosions across the city, were on the minds of all who attended a discussion about the trans-Atlantic relationship at the Atlantic Council. The Washington-based think tank addresses relations between the United States and Europe and has close connections to the Belgian capital.

If there is anything positive to take from the Brussels attacks, it is a hope that it could bring the United States and Europe closer together, reinforcing the fact that the world's two largest economic blocs face a common threat.

"We are all appalled by the events happening in Brussels," said Frances Burwell, vice president of the Atlantic Council. The attacks should serve as a signal to the United States that Europe is now the "front line" in the battle against terrorism.

"There is a security crisis facing Europe. This is not an isolated incident. It's having a very real impact on Europe," Ms. Burwell said.

Exactly how the United States can help, however, is still an open question. In the ongoing refugee crisis, for example, which may again be placed in a different light by the Brussels attacks, Ms. Burwell said it is hard to imagine the United States being galvanized into action.

The United States may consider providing additional aid to the United Nations refugee programs, but expecting the U.S. to take in additional refugees itself is not realistic - even if Ms. Burwell said she believes the country can and should take in as many as 100,000 to ease some of the burden on Europe.

"What happens with the attack is that it makes it politically even more difficult to act" on refugees, she said.

Gabor Steingart, Handelsblatt's publisher, said the events in Brussels had put into perspective for all that there are real and significant problems facing Europe and the world. Perhaps, for one day, it would displace the world's fascination with Donald Trump and the Republican presidential race.

Another stop of the Handelsblatt Global Edition U.S. tour was an informal and small discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, one of U.S. capital's most influential think tanks.

The Europe team of CSIS, headed by Heather A. Conley and Jeff Rathke as deputy director, met with the Handelsblatt team for an hour-long closed door discussion on the current state of European affairs. CSIS focuses mostly on foreign policy, advising the U.S. government and others by producing policy papers, hosting forums and organizing private briefings.

The meetings are part of a 10-day tour of New York and Washington organized by Handelsblatt Global Edition.


Tuesday, March 22, Representative of German Industry and Trade

Discussing Europe's future at the Representative of German Industry and Trade RGIT of in Washington DC. Handelsblatt's HGE president Fred Irwin (left), and Gabor Steingart, with Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute (right)


With the rising number of crises facing Europe in the past five years, a number of people are forecasting that the European Union may be a failed project doomed to collapse.

First the debt crisis, now the influx of well over 1 million refugees has sparked fears that the European Union will not manage to unite and sort out its problems.

At a panel discussion on Europe’s refugee crisis hosted by the Representative of German Industry and Trade in Washington, the concerns that the E.U. faces an existential crisis were palpable.

“It is important that the E.U. not collapse,” said Dieter Dettke, an adjunct professor in the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC.

To avoid that, however, it is critical that Europe once again find a “measure of control” over its borders in the current migration crisis, and even enlist non-European countries to aid in what Mr. Dettke called a “global migration crisis” rather than a European one.

Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, also doesn’t believe the doomsayers, but still has serious concerns.

“I don’t think the European Union will collapse. My fear is the E.U. becomes politically paralyzed,” he warned. “Unless the European Union gets to grips with the migration issue, there will be more Viktor Orbans and fewer Angela Merkels.”

Mr. Kirkegaard was referring to the Hungarian prime minister, a populist leader who has long been a thorn in the European Union’s side. But Mr. Orban is only one example – the rise of populist, anti-immigrant parties has been felt across Europe in the past few years, including in Germany.

The irony is that the influx of refugees still represents an opportunity, especially for Germany, if it is managed properly, argued Mr. Kirkegaard. With Germany near full employment  and facing the highest employment levels in Europe, it clearly needs the additional labor.

“Of all countries in the world, Germany has the biggest need for net migration,” Mr. Kirkegaard said.

Gabor Steingart, Handelsblatt’s publisher, also said he doesn’t believe those that are suggesting Europe has reached an “Apocalypse Now” moment.

Time and time again, Europe’s politicians have shown an ability to step back from the brink. The European Union has demonstrated it can be flexible enough, and even bend its rules and treaties to prevent a crisis from leading to the bloc’s collapse.

“The good news is that Europe will not explode…In the end, there will be a European solution,” Mr. Steingart argued. “The reality, the business reality, is what continues to tie us together.”

That doesn’t mean the current crisis won’t have consequences. Mr. Steingart warned that the European Union is once again seeing the rise of nation states, and will probably have to accept a slower pace of integration in the coming years.

Mr. Kirkegaard disagreed, at least in one area. He called for a major integration boost when it comes to how the European Union deals with the refugee crisis. The E.U. as a whole, he argued, needs to take the lead in protecting and financing its external borders, and should even adopt more pan-European programs to settle asylum seekers and other migrants.

One potential European split is not within the continent’s powers, however. The question of whether Britain will vote to leave the European Union was another serious concern for businesses, argued Thomas Zielke, who heads the Representative of German Industry and Trade(RGIT) in Washington.

“We would hate to see the U.K. go,” said Mr. Zielcke, who said his organization is working to rally the business community and his British counterparts based in the United States.

The RGIT panel, attended by some 60 people, marked the latest event in Handelsblatt Global Edition’s 10-day U.S. road trip, which has included stops in Washington and New York.


Monday, March 21: Friedrich Naumann Foundation


Handelsblatt publisher Gabor Steingart (talking) discussed Europe's security conundrum during a breakfast round table at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Washington, D.C., on Monday.


Europe's future is also closely tied to perceptions of how Germany is dealing with the refugee crisis. And how is the country handling the increased threat of terrorism in Europe.

Immigration and security are issues of concern for many Europeans, and were at the heart of Monday’s roundtable discussion at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s Transatlantic Dialogue Program in Washington, D.C.

“Currently what Germany is doing is checkbook diplomacy – a diplomacy of writing checks,” Handelsblatt editor and publisher Gabor Steingart said about the country’s efforts in solving the refugee crisis during the debate under the headline "Europe: The Overburdened Continent and Germany on the Crossroads."

Mr. Steingart was critical of the approach of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her supporters to win over Turkey as an ally to curb the influx of  refugees entering the European Union.

"First, they wrote checks to the Greek government, now to Turkey," he told an audience of around 25 government and business representatives, journalists and academics. "This is how they want to solve the problem."

Under the agreement reached between E.U. and Turkish leaders in Friday, all migrants and refugees reaching the Greek islands are to be deported back to Turkey after being registered, and for every Syrian returned, the European Union will resettle one from a Turkish refugee camp.

In return for its cooperation, Turkey has won E.U. support to double refugee aid to €6 billion ($6.8 billion), allow visa-free travel for its citizens in Europe’s Schengen passport-free zone and accelerate its long-stalled bid to join the European Union.

Kevin O’Brien, editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition, put Europe’s refugee crisis into perspective: The almost 1.5 million refugees who have already reached Europe would be the equivalent to 5 million people entering the United States within only a few months, he said. Europe, he added, needs to build a solid perimeter around its outer borders to control the intake of asylum seekers while maintaining free movement of goods and people within the region.

Mr. Steingart considers Germany’s current position on the refugee crisis as naïve. “Or as Gerhard Schröder, Angela Merkel’s predecessor, put it, ‘big heart, no plan’,” he said.

Walter Stadtler of the National Defense University questioned whether the flow of information between refugees via social media and other networks was encouraging people to come to Europe and intensifying current migration movements.

The antagonism of an open-door refugee policy and increased terrorist threats were on the agenda of the round table discussion.


He also asked how Germany was monitoring information related to potential terrorism attacks.

“To address the rise of extremism and respond appropriately to security threats in the digital age, the German government and other European nations are in desperate need of technological expertise and intelligence cooperation,” said Lea Steinacker of the German weekly Wirtschaftswoche at the meeting.

Since the Paris attacks on November 13, government and security officials in France and around Europe have been scrutinizing how the Islamic State was able to organize the terrorist attacks under the radar of Western intelligence.

Mr. Steingart stressed the need for more powerful European institutions to address these issue. “At the moment, it is only the European Central Bank that has an impact, but we need other institutions in Europe to gain strength, too,” he said.

He also pointed out that the European Union is a two-speed region: While all member states are required to make decisions together, only a few actually take action on issues, including Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

The Naumann roundtable was the latest of several stops during Handelsblatt Global Edition's 10-day U.S. roadshow, meeting with think-tanks, businesses and opinion leaders in Washington and New York.

Friday, March 18: Outrage and Outreach


Gabor Steingart, CEO of the Handelsblatt Publishing Group, talks to host Steve Sokol of the American Council on Germany (left) and Gertje Utley, wife of the late Garrick Utley, after the annual Utley Memorial Lecture.


Has the media lost the trust of the average voter?

It's a question that rings in the hearts of many Americans and the international community these days as they watch a firestorm gather around the possible nomination of Donald Trump, a billionaire populist who has drawn condemnation internationally for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, as the Republican candidate for U.S. president.

Is it the media's fault, or that of Washington's broken political establishment?

Those were some of the thoughts and concerns expressed during an annual lecture series on journalism that took place in New York on Friday in honor of the longtime and respected U.S. journalist Garrick Utley, hosted by the American Council on Germany.

The fact that Donald Trump has risen to political prominence is not the media’s fault, said Kevin O’Brien, editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition.

“Blaming the media is your last line of defense. When somebody is blaming the media, that means they are usually running out of options and are backed into a corner,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the media can rest on its laurels, argued Gabor Steingart, publisher of Handelsblatt and Handelsblatt Global Edition. Journalists need to do a better job of reinventing themselves and getting back in touch with their readers.

“The media likes to blame the Internet for almost everything that has hurt their business over the last decade,” Mr. Steingart said. But he added: “There is no need for despair. We are not dying, we are just transforming ourselves.”

The Internet may have transformed the media landscape, but the bigger driver of change is regular people challenging the established media's dominance, Mr. Steingart said. The answer for the so-called mainstream media isn't to walk away from the fight.

Outreach is not about being a slave to entertainment, but engaging readers in a conversation, listening to their concerns and their fears about politics and the political process – on both sides of the Atlantic.

“The digital age and the constant push of our readers and viewers for more participation is a positive force for progress. Let's be part of the solution instead of part of the problem,” he said.

“We have to figure out new partnerships with our readers,” Mr. Steingart added. “It’s not going to be just about reading but inviting them into our club and exchanging ideas with them.”

It’s a sentiment that the German media in particular has long resisted, but that is starting to change. The U.S. may have entered the digital age first, but German readers, who have been reliant on good, old-fashioned newspapers for longer, are also starting to wake up to the online era, argued Mr. O’Brien of Handelsblatt Global Edition.

The Global Edition of Handelsblatt is one example of Germany’s own new outreach – an English-language digital publication trying to bridge the divide and break through some of the misconceptions between Germany, Europe and the United States, he said.

The Garrick Utley Memorial Lecture Series in New York was Handelsblatt’s latest stop on a 10-day tour of the United States, meeting with think-tanks and opinion leaders in Washington and New York.

Thursday, March 17: Refugees, Free Trade and Populist Anger


At Handelsblatt's roadshow in the United States, Kevin O'Brien, editor in chief of the Global Edition, addresses guests during the luncheon.



It’s often been said that trends in the United States reach Europe with a time lag of about five years. Does that mean that Donald Trump could be on his way to Europe too?

Actually, he may already have arrived.

Listening to a discussion on the state of Europe’s politics in the U.S. capital on Thursday, the rise of populism is one of those rare trends that has grabbed the United States and Europe at exactly the same time - and it’s not a pretty picture.

At an event hosted by Handelsblatt Global Edition at the German embassy in Washington, much talk was of the souring German mood towards refugees and the rise of the “Alternative for Germany,” a populist party that was founded as an anti-euro party but in the past months has pushed back hard against immigration and the influx of more than 1 million refugees into Europe last year.



Last week, the AfD won more than 10 percent of the vote in three German states. Its success comes after other major victories by populist groups across the rest of Europe, from France to Italy to Greece.

“There are signs of a perfect populist storm coming to Europe,” warned Gabor Steingart, Handelsblatt’s publisher, at a lunch that included members of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, business representatives and congressional staffers.

Mr. Steingart counts himself as one of the pessimists on the state of Europe. He argued that democracy and the Europe Union have become like “two left feet,” in danger of “losing ordinary people” and in need to do a better job of reaching out to voters that feel nobody is listening to their concerns – whether on the challenge posed by refugees or by things like trade and globalization.

E.U. politics is leaderless at the moment, he argued. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of Europe’s largest economy, “cannot claim to be the leader of Europe” after many countries have rejected her open-door policy toward refugees, Mr. Steingart said.


Mr. Steingart with the ambassador Mr. Wittig following his opening remarks.


Not everyone is quite so pessimistic, however. Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, said he was confident that support for right-wing populist groups like the AfD will wane as the refugee crisis facing Europe eases over the coming years.

“I don’t see Europe yet at an abyss where it is about to implode,” Mr. Wittig said. The European Union has long been about messy compromises: “It’s not always a satisfactory process, but it does work.”

But Mr. Wittig was pessimistic on one point: The long-running economic crisis and refugee challenge in Europe have sapped much of Europe’s will to cooperate more closely together: “We’re going to see an era now where we see less integration.”

The populist anger has spread well beyond the issues of refugees and immigration. Mr. Steingart warned that the U.S.-E.U. free-trade deal is in danger of collapsing unless politicians and business leaders can turn the tide against voters that believe trade has brought them little more than jobs shifted overseas.

How to confront the anti-trade lobby? Make the U.S.-E.U. free-trade deal, known as TTIP, about something bigger than just trade, Mr. Steingart argued.

“TTIP is a framework we need for cooperation.” Like NATO has brought the trans-Atlantic community together on security, TTIP, he argued, could bring the United States and Europe closer together economically.


Thursday, March 17: American Enterprise Institute roundtable


Gary Schmitt, AEI resident scholar (right), Fred Irwin, president of the Handelsblatt Global Edition, center, and Karlyn Bowman, AEI senior fellow (left).


At the opening of a 10-day tour to promote Handelsblatt Global Edition, the Handelsblatt publisher and chief executive, Gabor Steingart, discussed the political and economic crises facing Europe on Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, one of Washington’s iconic conservative think tanks.

In a well-attended roundtable talk, Gary Schmitt, one of the institute’s senior directors, questioned what appeared to be Russia’s increasing leverage over Germany and Europe through its deliveries of natural gas via the Nordstream pipeline under the Baltic Sea. Mr. Schmitt said Russia was also using military action in Syria as leverage by controlling the flow of refugees into Germany.

Fellows in talk at a breakfast meeting at the American Enterprise Institute.


“It seems like Putin is getting his way in Europe,’’ said Mr. Schmitt, a former staff director of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

Mr. Steingart responded that economic sanctions supported by the West, including Germany, had had no effect on Russia and only increased tensions in Europe. “Russia has to be allowed to be part of the solution,’’ Mr. Steingart said.

Jeff Gedmin, the former president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, U.S. global broadcasters, said rising economic and social tensions in Europe caused in part by the refugee migration crisis had raised concerns in Washington that Europe could effectively rise to the multiple challenges. The potential rise of a far-right government in France and Britain’s possible departure from the European Union could redefine relationships on the continent, he said, and not in a good way.

Gabor Steingart, CEO of the Handelsblatt Publishing Group (left), Kevin O'Brien, (center) and Oliver Finsterwalder, CFO of the von Holzbrinck Media Holding, hold a breakfast meeting at the American Enterprise Institute.


“I’m not a euro-skeptic anymore,’’ said Mr. Gedmin, a senior fellow at Georgetown University. “But I am afraid that the E.U. could come apart and not in a smooth, amicable way.’’

The United States, Mr. Gedmin said, “has no clear idea of what Europe should look like.’’

Mr. Steingart said Germany and Europe have no coherent solution to the refugee crisis, and the challenges of integrating 1.1 million people from Syria and Iraq have been underestimated. European leaders, including Ms. Merkel, are not addressing the challenges, nor are they coming up with clear positions on key issues such as job retraining and cultural integration.

“Leaders in Europe are just muddling through,’’ Mr. Steingart said.

Ulrich Speck, a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, a Washington think tank, said a good part of Germany still backed Angela Merkel’s open-doors policy to the refugee crisis. In state elections last Sunday, leading political candidates in Rhineland-Palatinate and in Baden-Württemberg who supported Ms. Merkel’s positions prevailed, he noted.

“The situation is not as pessimistic as some paint it to be,’’ Mr. Speck, who is German, said.

Christopher Cermak and Franziska Scheven are editors with Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]