Andreas Rödder on the leadership we need, the empathy we lack, and the Germany-Europe relationship

We talked to Pr. Andreas Rödder about his perception of Europe, the role of Germany in the EU, and how political discourse is lacking empathy.
Oct 2 · 15 min read

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Professor Andreas Rödder

In this episode, Forum co-founder Nikolaus von Taysen talks to historian, author, and thought leader Professor Andreas Rödder. Professor Rödder shares his thoughts on the European debate, the political shifts post European elections, and the subtle significance behind the nominations of the new presidents for the European Commission and the European Central Bank. He also explains his views on the type of leadership needed now for Europe, and also for Germany, and talks about the hot topic that is Brexit.

You can find the full episode on Spotify, click the link below. Find us also on Apple Podcast, Google Podcasts, Audioboom, Deezer, on Stitcher and on

Welcome Professor Rödder. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us on our podcast. With your best sellers “Who is afraid of Germany, history of a European problem” and “21.0, A short history of today”, you are recognized as a German thought leader. How do you see your role in the European debate?

Professor Andreas Rödder: I’m seeing myself as a German and at the same time a devoted European. What I tried to do is to combine empathy, European mutual empathy on the one hand and political realism on the other.

Let’s start with a closer look at the European elections. In contrast to the general public expectation, both the left and the right lost many votes. The four European parties of the centre became even more powerful due to many new independent members of the Parliament. Is everything back to the ‘old normal’ in Europe?

So my first question is what is old and what is normal in Europe? If you say the normalcy is the majority of the Social Democrats or Socialists on the one hand, and the European People’s Party on the other hand, this isn’t old normalcy, which is and has not been restored by the European elections. So I don’t think that things are ‘old normal’ again in Europe. So what we witnessed with the European elections was that there was no landslide in favor of the anti-European parties. So this, on the one hand was avoided, but on the other hand, the strongest party in the UK as well as in France as well as in Italy, the strongest party everywhere is a euroskeptic or anti-European party. So I don’t think there is a very clear picture which comes out of the European elections. Even the outcome, the result of the European elections is proof of the European diversity and variety, and it’s very difficult to draw really one conclusion out of the result of the European elections. The situation in Europe is very unclear and it is very open. It’s open for political shaping, and at the same time for political leadership.

Why do you think the right which recently had growing results on national level, did not succeed as expected on the European level?

The question is what do we mean by succeed or expected, but this at the same time marks the difference. So there was a great fear that there would be this kind of landslide on the one hand, and this was avoided. Yes. But at the same time, as I said, the anti-European or euroskeptic parties still are strong, they became the strongest party, in the UK, France and Italy. But what is interesting at the same time is that there is a split within the euroskeptic parties. You could label this split by the well-known English opposition of Leave or Remain. What is interesting is that Le Rassemblement National as well as the Alternative für Deutschland in the mean time did abstain from the idea to leave the European Union. So you have a split within the right, the one part is for leaving, the other for remaining. So this is a very significant split within the European right, which means at the same time there is not the one European right, there is not the one European populist movement.

All these movements are pretty different, and we have a lot of explanations for the upcoming of these populist, nationalist, right-wing movements. And I think there is not really one clear explanation for all this, and nobody should mandate to have this one and only answer.

Ursula von der Leyen will now lead the European Commission. What does it mean that in our current political situation, a German has been elected by and represents such different interests in nations such as France and Hungary?

First of all, Germans did not have any of the leading positions within European institutions for many, many years. But I think as I understood the whole process of nominating the candidates, it was a bit different from the appearance that now there is a German leader of the European Commission. In my view, the nomination of the candidate, of the most important candidate, was Emmanuel Macron’s ultimate triumph. Since what he did was he selected a German President of the European Commission, and he established a French President of the European Central Bank. Which means, and the ECB from a French perspective is the most important of the European institutions, now France will have managed that from the first four terms of Presidency of the ECB, two and a half will have been held by French Presidents. And this is where I would say ‘chapeau’, this is real French power politics.

This relates to the next question: Jean Claude Trichet, the former president, the former French President of the European Central Bank recently said that if the ECB is left alone, he said, by politics, the next crisis will come. What needs to happen, on the one hand in Brussels and on the other hand in Berlin to prevent the next crisis?

Let me start with a historical analysis. So what happened, what indeed happened, was that the ECB became the key player in the euro debt crisis. And this was very much appropriate to the intentions of the European politics. It was a very comfortable solution for the European governments to let the ECB become this key player in order to solve the euro debt crisis, which in the end is not solved in regards to the real bases, and the real reasons of the euro debt crisis. What we witnessed in the euro debt crisis is the advantage as well as the problems of Merkel-driven politics. She’s very good in managing a crisis, but she is bad in strategy, meaning she is lacking any kind of European strategy. So what she managed, at least in the euro debt crisis, I would not speak about the migration crisis, but what she did in the euro debt crisis was to avert a collapse of the European institutions. But what she did not do was to contribute to a real solution of the problems. What will be necessary, as I said before, is leadership within Europe. And Macron is trying to establish French leadership in Europe, but as I said, it’s French leadership and this is completely okay. But what we are lacking in Europe is the main tenet of German leadership, a German position, which might be and will be different from the French position, but which starts to maintain a German position, which then can try to find a compromise with French and other positions in Europe.
But in one word, what Europe is needing is a German contribution to leadership. This is what Europe is lacking. And this is what Europe, what the EU is suffering from.

Do you expect Ursula von der Leyen to become a German leader in Brussels? Or will she be a truly European leader in Brussels, meaning she’s more a moderator than a leader?

First of all, Ursula von der Leyen indeed is a tough politician, she is. Having said that, in times of crisis we always witnessed that it is the European Council, that it is the heads of states of governments who take the lead in Europe. And the more crises we have, the more powerful the European Council is, and the weaker the Commission, as well as the Parliament, are. So what we witnessed during the last years is this shift towards the European Council.

So this does not give us a hint for a strong President of the Commission. Even Juncker wasn’t in the end. So on the one hand she is a tough politician on the other, the position of the Commission is not the strongest. The next point, which is an open question, is that she has been a strong adherent of the idea of an ever closer Union, and a European federal state. I don’t think this will be the recipe for solving European problems within the next decade. So we will have to wait and see whether she would be able to. There are several hints that she understood it, that it’s not the time for the European federal state. That is not the time for an ever, ever, ever closer Union. And the question will be whether she will be able to learn that. This will be the basic question, whether she will be a President of the European Commission who is able to establish a kind of leadership within the boundaries I mentioned before.

In your recent book “21.0 Conservative, an Agenda for Germany” you are proposing a new strategy for Europe: your Europe ‘à la carte ‘model shall solve the economic, political and social problems of the continent. What would this Europe look like?

Now, it’s not only a Europe ‘à la carte’ which I’m proposing. What I am proposing is a more open minded, is a more flexible European Union. A European Union which is ready and able for self criticism and self correction. A European Union which is open for realizing what went well and what went bad. A European Union, which is able and ready for deepening where it is necessary, but also for stepping back with steps of European integration, which did not work.
So in one word, a more open and more flexible Union does not only mean Europe ‘à la carte’. It means that there can be deeper institutional integration where it makes sense. Then on the other hand, that the Europeans should be open for more flexible cooperation in other regards. And this is what already is happening. So, for example, have a look at what is happening with PESCO, the defence initiative, I think this in the end is the right way. It’s not this one size fits all model, but the idea that every participant can contribute flexibly what one wants to contribute, and participate who wants to participate. I know the objection is that people are saying ‘Oh, this is cherry picking, this is ‘à la carte’. But ‘à la carte’ is one of these confusing wordings in the European integration.
Come on, when I go to a restaurant, where’s the problem when I don’t want the one size menu but want to eat à la carte? I think Europeans should be much more flexible and open minded, much more optimistic and creative as regards to our European idea and not fearing that if there is any deviation from the ever closer Union and the one size fits all model that the whole European Union would collapse. I don’t think that this is true, and PESCO shows that, as what is possible. The same is true for the Franco-German Elysée treaty. It does not hurt the European Union or the European integration at all. But if there are models of flexible, bilateral, multilateral cooperation, this can contribute to the European integration and does not hurt it. And at the same time, having said that, the idea of enhanced cooperation, which is a cooperation not of all of the 28 or 27, but of several states, a cooperation which is open for others to join it, this is one of the models of European integration, which is fixed into treaties.
And so I think this kind of more flexible and open ways of cooperation within the boundaries of the European Union is much more constructive than the one size fits all model.

Do you think that with your Europe ‘à la carte’ model Brexit could have been avoided?

I tried to avoid to maintain anything about the British mind, which is confusing all of us, but having said that and realizing that it was no more than 2%, which we’re missing in the referendum for a British Remain. I think 2% is not too much. This is a really small margin. And I would not maintain it strictly, but I very well could imagine that a more flexible Europe, a more flexible European Union could have helped to keep Britain within the EU.

Can you explain the historical background off Brexit based on the discussions of Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl at that time?

If you mention Helmut Kohl and Margaret Tatcher, you describe the great drama of Germany and the UK within Europe and within the European Union, since what we witness in the 80s is the great split between Germany and France on the one hand, and the UK on the other hand. In the 80s, Margaret Thatcher had a clear idea of the problems of a deeper European integration as it happened after Maastricht. But what she did not have, she had no idea of a post-Cold War Europe. And this is the difference, since Mitterrand and Kohl did have this idea for a post-Cold War Europe. It was the idea of a deeper European Union, for Kohl it was the idea of a federal state of Europe, and for Mitterrand, it was basically a European Union, not only a single market, but with a common currency and with a monetary union. They had an idea for Europe after the Cold War, but they had no idea about the problems, which were evolving. This marked the split between Germany and France on the one hand, and the UK on the other hand.

And in a certain way, what happened in 2016 was the end point for what had started in the 80s and during the 90s. And in a certain way, I think it’s a European drama since this misunderstanding, the lack of cooperation, of coming together of the three great powers in Western Europe in a certain way is the drama of European history. And if I could wish anything for a better world, it would be Germany, France, and the UK coming together, working together on a common idea of Europe.

How will the European Union look like without the Brits?

Much more state interventionist, much less market liberal, much more Mediterranean. This will be a major shift within the European Union and in a certain way, we already saw it with Macron starting to be much more dominant in the European Union than France had been during the last 10 or 20 years. It has, and this is something to do with Angela Merkel at the end of her term. But at the same time it already indicates that France and French ideas, Mediterranean ideas are getting stronger within the European Union, and the market liberal ideas are losing ground.

With our team, we were discussing the different meanings of liberal and conservative in European countries. Can you help us understand the different meanings of it better? Because I think some of the irritations and misunderstandings are caused by these different definitions.

Have a look at the European People’s Party: their idea of democracy is pretty different between different countries. The same is true for different meanings of freedom within Europe. I took part in a roundtable discussion in Hungary last weekend, and it was quite interesting to learn that the Hungarians, that even Orbán, have might have another idea of freedom than western societies have. Western societies are much stronger driven by individual liberty and the idea of freedom in Hungary has more to do with state intervention as creating conditions for a more formatted freedom, if you may say so. So what is interesting to see is that there are indeed different perceptions, different concepts of freedom, liberty or conservatism. And what is important is to talk about these different concepts. I think one of the greatest problems within the European Union, within Europe, is that, particularly Germans tend towards a kind of moral self-assertiveness, a kind of self concept of moral superiority, which is a real problem for other Europeans.

I think there is a basis, there are limits of understanding, there are limits. And the limits are the rule of law and freedom of speech. And if a European state, be it Poland, be it Hungary, violates these bases of the European Union, it is a problem which deserves investigation and sanctions. But within these limitations, I think it’s pretty important to be much more mutually open-minded and for different concepts of political ideas. On this basis we should, we should discuss these different ideas and we should be much more tolerant if the Poles or the Hungarians have another idea of society, or family and family politics. Why is it the task of the Germans to say ‘we have an idea of gender mainstreaming’, which the Poles and the Hungarians do have to do in the same way as we in Germany do that?

I think this is the problem and it’s a basis from misunderstandings in Europe. We need to be much more tolerant. And this is also and particularly true for the Germans.

Europe is suffering from finger pointing between national politicians. Salvini blames Merkel for the scale of migration, while German politicians are accusing elected European governments of not being democratic, as you described. What kind of attitudes do national politicians and people from both the “stronger”, as well as the “weaker” countries need to develop to keep the continent strong and united?

I think the basic requirement is what I would call mutual empathy. The idea that we should try to understand others before we condemn them. The question is why don’t Germans asked themselves ‘Why do Poles, why do Hungarians, why do Greeks, why do Italians speak, think and act as they do? This does not mean to approve what they do. This does not mean to approve Italian fiscal politics. It does not mean to approve of Greek demands for reparations from Germany.

But to be more open-minded about the question, why do they think so? Look for example, to Poland, the Polish experience with Germany is an experience of victimhood. Starting with the Prussian, Russian and Austrian partition of Poland in the late eighteenth century. Today is the eightieth anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin pact, which divided Central East Europe and enforced an enormous Soviet as well as German violence on these societies. They did not forget that, and it shaped their experience of Germans and Russians. I think it should be understandable.

So if we all in Europe tried to understand, the other’s background, the other’s history and the other’s perceptions, if we could develop this kind of empathy from all sides, I think this would be a major advantage, a major progress within Europe.
And this is true for all sides. It’s true for Germans as regards to Italians for example, and vice versa. So if the Italians blamed the Germans if a bridge in Genova breaks down, in any way it is the German fault, it is ridiculous. And not all economic problems in Greece within the last 70 years derive from the German occupation during the Second World War. So mutual empathy, I think, is what Europeans should try to learn since this is the basis for mutual respect.

As I told you I was in Hungary last week, and what they expect from the Germans is respect for the Hungarian way of life. And again, I would say there are limits. The limits are the rule of law, freedom of speech, the article two of the treaty of the European Union. But within these limits, we should be much more tolerant, much more open-minded and much more empathetic in order to try to understand the others and their perspectives.

Thank you so much Professor Rödder for your time and your valuable insights. As a last question, what do you see as the common denominator of Europe? What is uniting us?

To put it in a nutshell, the basis of a European union, is European diversity. The diversity of the nations in Europe. The diversity of political cultures. And it’s not only the uniting moment, but it’s also the treasure of European political culture. It’s this kind of pluralism which is distinguishing Europe, and which creates the unique value of Europe. And we should try to protect this. You need this unique value of Europe.

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Thanks to Finn Schmidt for editing this podcast.

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