Germany’s current debate about the ‘schwarze Null’ is heating up. Last month, SPD-frontwoman Saskia Esken threw her weight behind existing calls to let go of Germany’s unwritten rule that bans government deficits and has yielded eight consecutive years of budget balance for the federal government. Even Jens Weidmann, notorious throughout Europe for his hawkish stance as president of the Bundesbank, has said Germany should not fetishize the black zero. The debate is a welcome development not only for Germany but for the EU as a whole.
Public support for the European integration project can hardly be treated as given any more. Public opinion on the EU fluctuates heavily. Critical media reporting from and about Brussels increases. And Eurosceptic campaigns and parties flourish in most EU member states.
Both the public and the academic debates concentrate primarily on the strategies of the challenging actors in this regard. Yet, politicization is an interactive process. For the evolution of the debate about Europe, the political signals of the established actors are at least equally decisive.
For these actors – especially from governing or major opposition parties – political science mainly expects reluctant communication about European integration. The political ‘mainstream’ is expected to avoid internal partisan conflict on the EU while trying not to endanger supranational compromises. Thus clear political signals on the EU should be rare. Against surging public politicisation, however, this strategy is risky: a lack of competition about political alternatives within Europe may quickly lead to more fundamental opposition against Europe (for versions of this argument see here, here, here, or here). So, how do established political actors actually communicate on European integration?
Four weeks ago, Jean Claude Juncker appointed Martin Selmayr as the European Commission’s future administrative head – the so-called Secretary-General. This move came as a surprise, entered the respective Commission meeting agenda only last minute, and sidestepped the usual procedure for internal promotions. This staffing choice made it to various national news outlets (Le Monde, Zeit Online, and The Irish Times, to name a few), significantly increased online searches, created a veritable Twitter storm, and ultimately culminated into a rather confrontational debate in the European Parliament. For a public servant job in Brussels’ Berlaymont building, this is an unusual amount of public spotlight. Why so much fuss about one supranational official?