There is an elephant in the room. During the election campaign, the German politicians pretended it wasn’t there. They tiptoed around it, mouthing their slogans about unemployment and tax reform. But its great bulk left little room for any other issue.
The elephant, of course, is the EU. All the main parties agree about it, and it has therefore hardly featured in the campaign. But absence of this subject lends an unreal quality to the whole election. What is the point of voting Red or Black or Green when 80 per cent of your laws come, not from the German Parliament or Government, but from Brussels?
That is not my figure: it comes from the German Federal Justice Ministry. In reply to a question by Johannes Singhammer, MP for the CSU, ministers were forced to concede that, out of 23,167 legislative acts passed since 1998, nearly 19,000 originated in the EU.
This proportion is not unique to Germany, of course. Similar studies in Britain and in other states have produced the same finding. But in most other countries, Europe is a lively political issue. What I found bizarre, watching the German election campaign, was that no one mentioned the EU at all – except tangentially through the question of Turkish accession.
You might argue that this is a good thing: that consensus is better than division, and that it is nice to see all the parties agreeing about something. But the idea that partisan bickering is harmful to the country has been the argument of every dictatorship in history, from Bonaparte onwards. When all the politicians agree, the rest of us should suspect a plot against the ordinary citizen.
Without all-party consensus – and this is true of all the Member States, not just Germany – the EU would never have got to where it is. Again and again, the EU has extended its competence into a new area, and then, much later, regularised that extension in a treaty. In other words, the politicians have agreed among themselves to transfer a new area of policy to Brussels, and then presented their electorates with a fait accompli. We have now reached a point where almost every area of political life is, to some extent, subject to EU jurisdiction: transport, energy, trade, competition, agriculture, fisheries, regional government, immigration, asylum, foreign affairs, employment law, social policy, defence. Of all Germany's national departments, only two are wholly in control of their own affairs: the Ministry of Heath and the Ministry of Education.
This centralisation of power might have been justified if Brussels had done a better job than the nation-states, but it hasn’t. Look at its record in the fields of policy over which it has had exclusive control for longest. It has run agriculture since 1960, and given us the most wasteful, expensive, bureaucratic, immoral system of farm support in the world. It has run fisheries since 1972, and almost eliminated the fish stocks in its waters. It has run trade policy since 1956, and has held many African countries in poverty by closing its markets while simultaneously dumping its surpluses on them. Yet, despite the mess the EU has made of the policies it already controls, we carry on giving it new ones.
The funny thing is that, when I ask pro-European friends to tell me the purpose of the EU, they usually reply: “to spread democracy”. In reality, the European project has involved the steady transfer of powers, over 50 years, from elected national parliamentarians to unelected Brussels officials. It is commonplace to observe that the EU’s own structures are undemocratic, in that only the Commission may propose new laws. What is less widely observed is that European integration is also devaluing the democratic process within the Member States. None of the German candidates could honestly promise to revive Germany’s countryside (because of the Common Agricultural Policy) or overhaul labour relations (because of the Social Chapter) or regulate the borders (because of Schengen) or even adopt a radically different economic policy (because of the euro and the Stability Pact).
Whether the Germans voted for Mrs Merkel or Mr Schröder or another candidate, it did not affect any of the big issues. Some democracy.
A German version of this article appeared in Die Welt last Saturday