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HomeGeopolitical CompassEurope, Russia, OceaniaLeadership Aspirations versus Reality: Germany’s self-concept in Europe

Leadership Aspirations versus Reality: Germany’s self-concept in Europe

Author: Magnus G. Schoeller

Affiliation: University of Vienna – Researcher at the Centre for European Integration Research (EIF), University of Vienna, Austria, and Research Associate at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies in Florence, Italy

Organization: International Affairs 

Date/place: July 3, 2023 / London, UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 20



Keywords: Germany, EU, Leadership, Crisis 



Traditionally, Germany has tended to avoid assuming a prominent leadership role in Europe, often deferring to France in that regard. Nevertheless, there has been a notable change in Germany’s self-image and its ambitions to assume leadership in Europe in recent years. The country’s political leadership now envisions itself as a potential major player, ready to shoulder leadership responsibilities across various areas of EU policy. Germany’s desire for leadership was manifest in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s speech on August 29, 2022. In his address, Scholz laid out his vision for further European integration and tackled the numerous policy challenges that lie ahead. This moment marked Germany’s chance to step up and meet the growing calls for it to assume a leadership position in Europe. Nonetheless, despite this newfound willingness, there remains a noticeable gap between Germany’s aspirations and the actual perception of its leadership capabilities. As a result, the question lingers as to whether Germany can effectively fulfill its leadership aspirations and provide the guidance that Europe requires during times of crisis.


While Germany envisions itself as a potential leader, it has faced challenges in living up to these responsibilities. This challenge becomes particularly relevant when we consider the Ukraine conflict and its implications for various EU policy domains. The German political elite acknowledge the nation’s potential for leadership, fostering hopes it will meet the rising expectations. However, there exists a noticeable gap between Germany’s aspirations and its actual execution of leadership. This article highlights the importance of comprehending to what extent German political leadership regards Germany as a potential or actual leading power within the EU. This understanding contributes significantly to how we conceptualize Germany’s role and leadership dynamics in the realm of regional integration and international relations.

While Chancellor Scholz outlined Germany’s ambitious vision for Europe in his speech in Prague, the survey results presented in this article, as we will see, suggest that Germany’s aspirations for leadership often encounter practical challenges. In his speech, Olaf Scholz underscored four critical issues that the EU must address to overcome its current challenges. Firstly, he affirmed his commitment to expanding EU engagement to include countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. Regarding the Council of the European Union, Scholz advocated transitioning from unanimity to majority voting. Additionally, he proposed a new rule for the allocation of seats in the European Parliament following enlargement, aiming for each electoral vote to carry roughly equal weight. The second major point of his speech focused on European sovereignty and defense. Scholz called for a ‘Made in Europe 2030’ strategy, emphasizing Europe’s leadership in key technologies. In the realm of defense, he outlined two key stances: ensuring the EU’s planned rapid deployment capacity is operational by 2025 and taking responsibility for establishing an EU headquarters when heading the deployment force in 2025. He also mentioned the development of a new air defense system that encourages participation from other European states. The third issue raised by Scholz pertained to EU migration and fiscal policy. He suggested forging stronger partnerships with countries of origin and transit, full Schengen Area membership for Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, and simplifying migrant employment opportunities across EU member states. However, the specifics of how Germany intends to achieve these goals remain unclear. In terms of fiscal policy, Scholz reiterated Germany’s long-standing position on fiscal restraint, emphasizing the need to reduce the high debt levels in other Eurozone countries. Notably, the speech did not mention any proposals for assisting deficit states in reducing their debt levels or stabilizing the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) through alternative means. Finally, Scholz emphasized the need to support the European Commission in safeguarding liberal values and the rule of law.

The article underscores the pivotal role that Germany, as the largest member state of the EU, plays in surmounting the crises the EU faces along a wide spectrum of issues. Nonetheless, it also highlights the ongoing debate and uncertainty surrounding Germany’s readiness and capability to lead in these critical situations. The research findings indicate that while Germany’s political leadership envisions itself as a potential powerhouse within Europe, it has yet to fully embrace and fulfill this role. This raises important questions about the future trajectory and effectiveness of the EU in handling and resolving its crises.


In terms of methodology, the author outlines two analytical approaches in the article: one conceptual and the other empirical. From a conceptual perspective, it is widely acknowledged that Germany has transitioned from being a ‘restrained power’ to a ‘normalized power,’ and more recently, to a ‘status quo power.’ This shift in perception is a significant development. The article contends that the self-perception of a nation’s political elite is a crucial yet often overlooked factor when explaining the provision of leadership or the lack thereof. As such, whether Germany decides to take on a leadership role could prove pivotal in addressing upcoming challenges. From an empirical standpoint, there is a substantial demand for German leadership, but it remains uncertain whether Germany will step up to fulfill this role. This article aims to address the lack of empirical data concerning Germany’s self-concept as a potential leader within the EU, thereby providing valuable insights in this regard. It furthermore contributes to the field of leadership theory by delving into Germany’s self-concept and its implications for regional integration and international relations.


Germany holds a significant role within the European Union (EU) as a potential leader. Existing literature examining Germany’s position in the EU recognizes its evolving role and analyzes it from a range of perspectives, touching on concepts like regional power, hegemony, and leadership. While Germany has undeniably emerged as a prominent player within the EU, particularly in the context of the Eurozone crisis, it remains hotly debated if it has in fact assumed a hegemonic role. The definition of hegemony itself is a matter of contention, with scholars offering differing assessments in this regard. Nevertheless, Germany’s self-perception as a potential leading force in Europe has gained traction. However, a noticeable gap persists between Germany’s willingness to take on a leadership role and its actual execution of such leadership. This article helps us to comprehend Germany’s role within the EU. 

Reviewing the existing literature, it becomes evident that there is a need for a comprehensive study of Germany’s leadership across diverse EU policy domains. Additionally, there is a notable absence of a clear operational definition of leadership in the existing body of research. Understanding Germany’s leadership within the EU is of paramount importance from both a conceptual and empirical standpoint. It not only contributes to our evolving understanding of Germany as a regional power but also informs ongoing discussions about its potential or actual leadership role within the EU.


 In order to delve into Germany’s self-perception regarding leadership, the authors relied on a survey of its political elite. This survey offers a thorough exploration of Germany’s readiness to take the lead and its actual performance in doing so. By dissecting these two dimensions, the survey simultaneously provides valuable insights into Germany’s self-view as a potential leader within Europe and assesses its capability to effectively assume this role in practice. This survey contributes to refining our understanding of Germany’s role as a somewhat hesitant dominant power and adds to the body of leadership theory within the realms of regional integration and international relations.

Defining and selecting members of the political elite is a crucial initial step in gaining insights into how they perceive leadership within EU policy-making. Political elites represent small, closely-knit groups with significant influence over political outcomes. In this research, the author employed the positional method, which involves identifying and choosing political elite members based on their formal roles within institutions. This method offers a high level of reliability and enables a thorough analysis of Germany’s viewpoint regarding European integration. While this approach might not capture individuals with varying degrees of influence, it does provide valuable insights into how the German political elite as a whole sees itself in terms of regional leadership. By surveying a substantial sample of the political elite, this study aims to collect dependable data on their personal opinions and perspectives. This approach ensures a comprehensive understanding of how the German political elite views leadership in the context of EU policy-making.

The survey findings indicate that members of the German political elite generally support the idea of their country taking on a leadership role in various policy domains and across different interpretations of leadership. However, there is a significant discrepancy between their aspirations for leadership and the actual reality. The survey reveals that a substantial 87 percent of them view initiating solutions to common problems as the most characteristic behavior associated with political leadership. Following closely behind are actions like mediating or actively seeking compromises, assuming positions of responsibility, and providing a vision for the future. In general, the survey demonstrates a high level of consensus across various EU policy areas, with a range of 63 to 91 percent of respondents either fully or partially approving of Germany taking a leading role. However, these figures also highlight the disparity between leadership aspirations and actual practice. When asked about their specific policy areas, only about one-third of respondents believe that Germany plays a leading role on average. This gap becomes even more apparent when considering those who fully support the idea of Germany assuming a leadership role. With fewer than 15 percent in full agreement that Germany provides leadership and even less than 6 percent within their primary policy field, it becomes clear that there is a substantial gap between aspirations for German leadership and perceptions of its realization. 


The author draws two key conclusions regarding the gulf between leadership aspirations and reality. Firstly, when it comes to the question of providing a vision for the future of the EU, the support for Germany taking on a leadership role is at its peak, with 91 percent of respondents believing that Germany should provide such a vision. However, in contrast, only 22 percent think that Germany actually fulfills this role, and less than 2 percent believe that Germany fully embodies this description of leadership. Thus, the most significant perceived leadership gap exists in the context of providing a vision for the EU’s future. Secondly, 83 percent of the respondents who fully or partially agree that Germany should engage in this role regard initiating solutions to common problems as the most characteristic aspect of leadership . However, only 56 percent find it “rather true” that Germany develops such initiatives, and no respondent believes it to be entirely true that Germany creates initiatives or programs to solve EU problems. Additionally, there is a noticeable gap between the perceived demand for leadership from other countries and Germany’s actual provision of leadership. While most respondents do not believe that Germany takes the lead in their respective policy areas, a majority of over 70 percent feel that other EU member states expect or even demand leadership from Germany.

In terms of the survey’s control variables, it is noteworthy that German politicians appear to be more skeptical than civil servants that Germany does in fact provide this leadership. None of the surveyed politicians believe that Germany consistently assumes a leading role in their primary policy areas, and only 15 percent think this occurs in most cases. Conversely, 62 percent of surveyed civil servants believe that Germany provides leadership, at least in most cases, within their primary policy field.


To conclude, the text highlights Germany’s commitment to European integration but also notes that this commitment is dependent on domestic developments. The author regards Germany’s willingness to lead and its domestic sources as important factors in its role as a potential leading power. The article acknowledges that there have been various theoretical perspectives on Germany’s leadership role in the EU, emphasizing the need to understand Germany’s self-concept and its domestic sources of leadership to analyze its role effectively. Overall, the key ideas in the article revolve around Germany’s evolving role, its self-view, and its commitment to European integration, and since the European Union’s success is closely tied to Germany it is important to understand these factors while analyzing Germany’s leadership in the EU.

Germany’s role as a regional power, hegemon, and leader in the European Union has significant implications for both Germany and the EU as a whole. Germany’s leadership and influence in various policy areas suggest that it plays a crucial role in shaping EU decisions and policies. This can lead to a more stable and cohesive EU, as Germany’s leadership can provide guidance and direction. Additionally, taking this article’s conclusions seriously means that Germany’s future role in the EU is uncertain. The article highlights the crisis facing the EU and raises questions about Germany’s ability to overcome these challenges and maintain its leadership position. This uncertainty can have implications for the EU as it may struggle to find a suitable replacement for Germany’s leadership were it to diminish, especially as the European Union faces multiple crises threatening its union.


By: Sara EL Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern



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