More than a car accident

Albrecht Sonntag |

Oh, for the age of innocence... My good old blue Golf in Buckingham, 28 years ago.

Oh, for the age of innocence… My good old blue Golf in Buckingham, 28 years ago.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal has many dimensions, some of which have not even started to unfold yet. The sheer perversity of the software used by the company with the aim of hiding the real level of nitrogen oxide emissions of its cars is most likely to become a textbook case of corporate hubris and cynicism in business ethics courses. It will also no doubt deal a very heavy blow to one of the world’s biggest manufacturers, sending shockwaves around the entire car industry.

But the scandal will also have a European dimension. In addition to the industry’s deceptive practices it will reveal on a much larger scale than before the extent to which the powerful lobbyists of the automobile sector have consistently and systematically undermined the EU’s attempts to introduce new and binding emissions standards. If necessary, with the decisive support of the German chancellery whose doors are always open for the leaders of big German business. Next time around it will be more difficult for Mrs Merkel to put her political clout behind the requests of what has been revealed to be a bunch of cynics.

While the media speculate about the (most likely disastrous) consequences for Volkswagen, other potential culprits, and the German economy as a whole, including the stock exchange and labour market, the psychological impact of the unfolding crisis seems somewhat underestimated. Given Germany’s role within the European Union, its much-discussed ‘reluctant’ hegemony, any serious long-term injury inflicted on the country’s self-perception can indeed have repercussions on the future of the European integration process.

It is important to understand that Volkswagen is not just a popular brand for the Germans. Only some months ago, in July 2015, a YouGov survey confirmed to what extent this household name is perceived by Germans to be an emblematic symbol of their entire nation. As answer to the question ‘What is typically German?’ almost two thirds of the Germans (63%) spontaneously chose ‘Volkswagen’, far ahead of other symbols like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (49%), Angela Merkel (45%) or the football Nationalmannschaft (39%).

In the 1990s I often joked in the classroom about how the Germans’ complicated relationship with traditional symbols like their flag, anthem or capital, and their almost obsessive emotional attachment to the D-Mark, Volkswagen and football, revealed that they were still some way from becoming a ‘normal’ nation. And even if there may have been some ‘normalisation’ over the last fifteen years (Berlin’s new image, the 2006 World Cup), the relationship with the automobile has remained rather neurotic. Even Die Zeit, the German intellectual weekly, which for the seven decades of its existence had never included a full-fledged ‘car’ section among its many pages, has now – just one week before the Volkswagen scandal exploded – introduced one, puzzled by the irrational aspects of the automobile’s place in German society.

A brilliant panel in Bilbao: Douglas Webber, Magnus Schoeller, Miguel Otero, Simon Bulmer, Willie Paterson.

A brilliant panel in Bilbao: Douglas Webber, Magnus Schoeller, Miguel Otero, Simon Bulmer, Willie Paterson.

Against such a backdrop, the current events cannot be without a serious impact on German collective self-perception and self-confidence. Which is already a more fragile thing than Mr Varoufakis seems to suggest. At the recent UACES conference in Bilbao, one of the very best panels I have had the pleasure to attend over recent years turned around this question for ninety minutes. After an intensive discussion of German leadership in Europe analysed from various angles, the final paper by Douglas Webber from INSEAD discussed the decreasing support of German public opinion for European integration, expecting a growing indifference in years to come and openly worrying about the consequences of this tendency on the attitudes of future German political leaders.

And there’s the rub. With Germany being massively bashed for its role in the Greek drama, for its somewhat helpless naiveté in the refugee crisis, and now for the blatant cynicism of what was thought to be a beacon of everything ‘Made in Germany’ stood for, German public opinion may well be increasingly tempted to opt for a kind of self-imposed, inward-looking, isolation.

When the last king of Saxony, Friedrich August, had to abdicate in 1918, he famously said ‘Well, now you can do your shit by yourselves!’, an expression that has entered the vernacular. It is perfectly possible that one of the next German chancellors (or finance ministers) will quote it more than once in the years to come, most likely with reference to Brussels.

Albrecht Sonntag, EU-Asia Institute,
ESSCA School of Management.