James Sloam. The European Policy of the German Social Democrats: Interpreting a Changing World. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. xi + 267 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4039-3581-6.
Reviewed by William Smaldone (Department of History, Willamette University)
Published on H-German (March, 2006)
Adjusting to the New World
When the "people's democracies" of Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, few were as surprised as West Germany's Social Democrats. Like almost everyone else in Germany and elsewhere, they believed that the East German and other Soviet-backed governments in the region, however illegitimate, would survive for quite some time. Along with their Christian Democratic rivals, they were intent on pursuing their well-established strategy of Ostpolitik, which involved reaching out to the people of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and other eastern states by promoting social, cultural and economic cooperation with the communist regime. As late as 1987, representatives of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the East German Communist Party (SED) had hammered out a joint paper on peace and security issues in which they argued that capitalism and socialism were capable of peace and open to internal reform. The sudden dissolution of the East German regime, the reunification of the country and the disappearance of the Soviet bloc revolutionized the European political landscape and undercut many of the basic assumptions guiding Social Democratic policy in Europe. With Germany fully sovereign for the first time since 1945 and Europe moving toward greater unity, Social Democracy was forced to rethink its policy goals in important ways.
James Sloam focuses on the evolution of German Social Democracy's European policy since unification. In a straightforward, well-organized and compact study he argues that, after decades of pursuing German interests by subsuming them in multilateral cooperation above all else (exaggerated multilateralism), "a changing political environment has ultimately resulted in an SPD European policy characterized by pragmatic multilateralism--a commitment to represent (Europeanized) German interests more forcefully, but within the multilateral setting of the European Union" (p. 14). Sloam examines the factors that shaped SPD European policy from the immediate post-unification years, when the party was in opposition and internally divided, through its electoral victory of 1998 and its period in power until 2005. His multilayered analysis stresses the interplay of generational, electoral-strategic and ideological developments within the SPD in a "new policy environment" marked by the process of unification, Germany's restored Mittellage, the unfolding of European integration and globalization.
This is not a work of history based on archival sources. It is, rather, a study in contemporary political science based on the author's wide reading of the secondary literature, party publications, published government documents and newspapers. Sloam divides his book into five parts. In part I, he briefly examines the historical background of Social Democratic European policy, the evolution of the SPD into a "catch all" or Volkspartei and the rapidly changing domestic, European and global context in which the party has been operating in recent years. Part II focuses on the formation of policy within different internal party structures on the local, Land and federal level, in which ideas are developed, debated and ultimately either adopted or rejected. Sloam also analyzes how policy-making and implementation shape and are in turn shaped by the institutional frameworks of the German and European (EU) political systems. In part III, the author looks at the willingness of the post-1990 generation of SPD leaders to formulate a foreign policy more focused on specifically German interests than earlier views, which had been shaped directly by the war and its immediate aftermath. He notes their readiness to build majority support by appealing to an ever wider popular base and their openness to ideological pragmatism as a means of broadening their appeal and winning policy support when in office. Sloam outlines how ideological disputes, changes in the social basis of party membership and less reliable voter loyalty challenged the party's ability to formulate a coherent agenda in the early 1990s. Although it took time, by 1995, the internal bickering had evolved toward greater consensus about the party's domestic and foreign policy goals. As the Kohl administration struggled to deal with the reconstruction of the east, rising mass unemployment and fiscal crisis at home while simultaneously promoting rapid European integration, the SPD began to construct the "innovation and justice" policy alternative that helped it eventually to win power.
Sloam does not provide a chronological, blow-by-blow history of the evolution of the SPD's European policy. Instead he focuses on two core issues that illustrate the trends of its development: the European Union's economic and monetary union (part IV) and the eastern enlargement of the Union (part V). In each of these cases he shows how the party's policy evolved as different power centers (for example, the Bundestag, Länder governments, special commissions and the party executive) struggled to dominate policy-making and how the political weight of each center shifted as the party moved from the opposition into the government. Sloam stresses how the party grew attuned to voters' skepticism and apathy about the Euro and their fears that monetary and political unity could bring higher unemployment and inflation. He notes that, while the leadership never turned against the Euro or enlargement, it did attempt to develop a European policy that placed greater emphasis on protecting German interests in the process of integration. Indeed, despite the defeat of the more labor-oriented, internationalist leaders, such as finance minister Oscar Lafontaine, by the more "pragmatic" and business-friendly Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Sloam asserts that the main thrust of the SPD's developing policy was to create and implement a social-democratic model for Europe (p. 164). Such a model would achieve economic modernization and social justice within the framework of a politically and economically united Europe. The market, a new regulatory framework, and a range of constitutional guarantees would all be a part of this system.
Sloam's general argument is compelling. The SPD, once in power, did continue the Christian Democrats' multilateral approach to European integration, but it also was more willing to assert German interests within that process. Its efforts to reduce Germany's financial obligations to the EU (proportionately higher than all other members), to restructure the European Council in preparation for enlargement and to insert a Charter of Social Rights in the EU Constitution illustrate this new assertiveness, while the government's readiness to compromise or back off from some of these demands highlights its pragmatism and commitment to continued multilateral cooperation and integration.
At the same time, I think that Sloam's discussion would have benefited from a more thorough analysis of the struggles within the SPD for control of party policy. One gets little sense of the actors or their respective constituencies. It would have been useful if the author had discussed more thoroughly to what extent the new "social-democratic model" for Europe is actually that or if it is nothing more than watered down neo-liberalism. Schröder worked hard during his administration to "modernize" the German social welfare system, but to most people the reforms his government implemented were concessions to capital that resulted not in more "justice" but in cuts to programs serving the weak. As Sloam notes repeatedly, politics remains largely domestic and most Germans pay relatively little attention to EU affairs until a major change, like enlargement, hits them over the head. Unimpressed with Schröder's "centrist" social-democratic model at home, few paid close attention to SPD efforts to insert it into the process of European integration. As Sloam recognizes, European governments have moved much more decisively to adopt German suggestions to promote "modernization" than those related to social justice. Perhaps Germans will pressure their government to change this emphasis, as the problems in the economy deepen and the effects of integration and enlargement (such as the movement of capital and labor) become more pronounced.
In sum, Sloam's book will be very helpful to those interested in the evolution of Social Democratic EU policy in the period since unification. Although the work has a significant number of spelling and other copy-editing mistakes, it is competently written, well documented, and equipped with a useful bibliography.
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William Smaldone. Review of Sloam, James, The European Policy of the German Social Democrats: Interpreting a Changing World.
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