28 January 2020

The ruling coalition's divergences could stop Berlin from becoming a global leader

Negoiţă Sorin

After many years of equidistant attitude in terms of its interference in the international policy, Germany seems, lately, to be more and more interested in committing to new international security responsibilities, particularly Europe’s, to “defend human’s rights, freedom, democracy, rule of law and the international order”. 2020 brings Germany real challenges in reaching the assumed goals, to take a stance as European and global leader. However, different opinions within the ruling coalition could block Germany’s ambitions and it all depends on how the Berlin executive will manage to react so that to prove its leadership capacity.

Image source: Hepta

Germany’s international ambitions

Since the peaceful reestablishment from three decades ago, Germany passed through a series of remarkable transformations, with an important economic ascension, however not huge accomplishment in terms of foreign policies. For the past years, as German state’s power was growing, there was a will to get more and more involved in the international policy. That happens considering also that the regional and global security environment is extremely complex and experiences a continuous transformation, generated by multiple challenges of different state and non-state actors.

Germany’s foreign policy was, particularly after 2000, in a continuous process, maintained by all coalition governances which came to power. The main German foreign policy and security pillars, which are based on dense institutional connections network, followed the “allied” principle, multilaterally, on one hand by maintaining and consolidating the partnership with US and, on the other, by raising EU’s profile continuously. They did all of this without ignoring UN’s role. Also, Germany permanently showed a clear attitude in combating unilateral actions when solving international security issues.

For quite some time, both old European democracies (Germany, France) and US, but also Russia and now China and India, are fighting to become global leaders. The new global order, which is in full swing and it is based on many security poles, is lately pressured by different international actors. Some states’ fragility has destabilized some entire regions, like Middle East and Africa, and created violent conflicts in these areas, leading to mass migration waves. Not least, Crimea’s seizure by Russia provoked a huge crisis in the relation between the West and Moscow.

Therefore, Germany has recently been more involved internationally, committed to ore responsibilities, especially as leader of nation-framework for some initiatives. An example to that end is the federal minister of defence’s requirement, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (president of the biggest German political group, the Christian-Democratic Union), from November 2019, by which it asks the German Parliament a more active commitment from Bundeswehr in more foreign missions, to support their own political, economic and strategic interests.

The ruling coalition is being questioned

Two months ago, the half social-democratic part of the “Big Coalition”- GroKo[1], which rules Germany, chose (December 6th 2019) the new bicephalous leadership, provided by former minister of finance from West[halia- North Renanai, Norbert Walter-Borjans and the deputy Saskia Esken. It is noteworthy that it is the third time in the last two years when the social-democratic Party (SDP) changes its leader. Now, they have chosen a couple of politicians who are less interested on being part of the governance and more on social justice and cohesion, a strong retirement system, fair incomes, fair rent, but also the investments and measures increase for climate protection. Also, they stand for Germany’s international position, but not through guns, but diplomacy and cooperation tools for a lasting development and conflicts’ prevention.

In the internal election campaign, the two social-democratic politicians have permanently insisted to leave the coalition, but the December Congress was limited only to establishing a set of requests addressed to partners to remain in the Merkel Government, a so-called "renegotiation" of the 2018 agreement. On the other hand, the Conservative bloc, headed by CDU President Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Markus Söder, has made it clear that he does not want to renegotiate the old agreement, but it might take into account some smaller changes. However, many voices in the Union believe that the coalition agreement already has too many positions for social-democrats and, if further compromises or promises were made, Christian-democrats would lose electorates’ credibility.

Moreover, the new Christian Democratic president must prove to his own party rivals, until the next elections (2021), that he is worthy to be Angela Merkel's successor, both ruling the party, but especially, to be able to get the federal chancellor position. Therefore, a "collapse" of the incumbent Government could be attributed to CDU’s defective leadership and thus might tempt the counter-candidates to increasingly think of an alternative to party’s leadership.

Concerning about the current coalition is also the fact that both the CDU and SPD have met dramatic loses in the last European and regional elections, to the detriment of the Greens and the far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The Greens party has grown considerably in the preferences of the German electorate, being the beneficiary of urban middle class’s vote and of current ruling coalition’s weaknesses, thus hoping for governance in a future executive. However, according to the latest polls, GroKo is still supported by almost two out of three Germans (64%).

The foreign policy promoted by the Big Coalition seems to lack of vigour

In terms of foreign policy, it seems that Germany does not meet Coalition’s general consensus in terms of the role it intends to play on the international stage and could become a topic of dispute within GroKo. Although Chancellor Merkel has mostly a positive image abroad, her era being near its end, the legacy of her foreign policy is not too rich. Many times she has caused dissatisfaction among the allies (migration issues), in other situations she has adopted a relatively reserved attitude (the debate on the future of Europe), she has refused to play a major role in solving some extremely sensitive European issues (Brexit), or she limited relations with some states to economic interests only (Russia, China).

Therefore, some relevant questions are raised: "Does Germany want to become a leader in the EU or globally?" Or "How much should Germany be involved in international crises and conflicts?" and, not last,  "What role will the Bundeswehr play in this context?".

The growing dissensions within the ruling coalition, due to their differing positions on many internal policy issues, but especially related to Bundeswehr's engagement in international missions, may provoke some issues and may block the accomplishment of Germany's foreign and security policy objectives. A proof to that end is the speech from the December congress of Walter-Borjans, new social-democratic president, who described the formation he leads as "anti-militarist" and warned the governing partners against the "militarization of foreign policy", referring to Bundeswehr missions abroad. These statements are opposing the demands of the federal defence minister, from November 2019, who wants more commitment from the German military in different areas of the world. The new president was also supported by his party colleague Heiko Maas, the current German foreign minister, who stated, from the same forum, that ensuring a lasting peace must be achieved at the negotiating table and not through military means.

Walter-Borjans's criticisms against the CDU / CSU also point to Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer's intention to allocate 2% of GDP for defence, as the North Atlantic Alliance members pledged at the 2014 Summit. Hence, the social-democratic leader emphasized that it is SDP’s duty to oppose the continuous arms increase in the world.

Also, the two German foreign and security policy pillars, the partnership with the US, on one hand, and European cooperation and integration, on the other, do not meet Germany's world leader ambitions. Since Donald Trump came to power, the US-Germany relations have been seriously affected. He repeatedly criticized Angela Merkel for both Berlin's lack of decision to increase defence spending, but also the more active involvement in resolving international situations (the crisis in Ukraine). Also, the reserved attitude towards EU reform so far leads to the conclusion that Germany's foreign policy is at “standstill", mostly because of existing divergences within the coalition.

Where is Germany’s European coalition heading to?

So far, Merkel government's European policy has not reached the expected results, often adopting a neutral or awaiting attitude to many of allied states’ initiatives, especially France’s. It seems, however, that this new year offers more chances for Germany to actually make a change in the power balance within EU. This also results from last year's report on the first half of Berlin Government's mandate, which established a few bold goals for 2020.

Firstly, the German Federal Government will take over, in July, the rotating presidency of EU’s Council, where it intends to start initiatives to support a "strong and sovereign" Europe. An example to that end, according to the head of German diplomacy, Heiko Maas, the establishment of a European Security Council. Interestingly, this structure is to include also the United Kingdom, even if it exits EU on January 31, a proposal supported by the German opposition (Green Greens). In fact, it is expected that during the German Presidency the relations between London and Brussels will be clarified, based on equitable principles, an important task being "defending the Community market".

Another important issue to be solved by the German Government is the EU budget, given that the United Kingdom is one of the most important contributors, which gives the Berlin Chancellor special skills in the negotiations to be carried with the EU member states.

In addition to these objectives, during the EU Council Presidency, Germany will also have to manage two of Union’s important foreign policy events, namely the EU-China and EU-Africa Summits especially that as regards China, it will be intensively discussed the involvement or non-involvement of the Chinese Huawei company in building the 5G network in Europe. Indeed, Africa should not be neglected, as a major topic that has been debated for some time now is migration, wherefore Germany has had so far some approaches that have led to complaints among European allies.

Ahead of these challenges, we should expect re-launch of Berlin's European policy this year and its more active involvement in increasing the German state’s role in solving many important problems that are troubling Europe.

The first step in gaining the European leader status was the fact that Germany got, during the previous year, the European Commission’s presidency, through Ursula von der Leyen, who will have to solve important problems on Commission’s agenda, among them being the migration issue or the "Green Deal" project to combat climate change. This last issue is, in fact, in the forefront of Berlin's policy and could be a field wherein Germany could play a key role.

Germany’s 2020 foreign policy perspectives

As for the next foreign policy steps, also influenced by Brits’ definitive withdrawal from the large European family and the changing of force reports within the Union, Germany will, first and foremost, seek a reorientation in managing relations with the member states. We witnessed, lately, some reluctance and even distance to Macron's France, a real candidate for the leader title in the European space, especially since it is the only country in the EU that has a nuclear weapon. Therefore, we expect Germany to get close to the Central and Eastern European states. Berlin leaders' attempts to approach the Visegrad Group (V4) stand as testimony, an initiative in this regard being started by the opposition, which, through the voice of Liberals (FDP), called for the promotion of institutionalized strategic cooperation with the V4 states.

Also, Germany will have to develop a reorganization policy for its long-term relationship with Great Britain given that it is difficult to predict the future cooperation of the island state with mainland Europe as soon as the economic relations will be resized.

In terms of the transatlantic relations, Berlin reaffirmed its commitment to the US partnership, but it is circumspect about Chancellor Merkel and President Trump’s collaboration. Washington’s denunciation of the Iranian agreement has concerned Berlin, so the Merkel government could support the need to develop national and European defence capabilities.

Although Germany's relations with Russia are still affected by Crimea’s seizure and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Berlin is trying to diplomatically maintain a good relationship with Moscow. It is obvious that the German state has economic interests in Russia, an example for that being the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline system, despite criticism of some allied states and EU partners and especially the recent sanctions approved by US for the companies that contribute to gas pipeline’s installation in the Baltic Sea.

Recent developments in Middle East’s security situation pushed Berlin to end Germany's commitments in Iraq. Thus, the German military will end both its mission within the international coalition fighting the Islamic State - ISIS (March 2020), but also the training mission in Iraq (September 2020). This situation could create some problems in the region, given that the current coalition largely annihilated, but did not completely eliminated, the insurgent forces. Therefore, both missions require extra effort to prevent the "resurrection" of terrorist cells and could thus be considered more important than ever.

At the same time, Germany will be actively involved in keeping the Iranian nuclear agreement and, to that end, has triggered, together with the other two EU co-signatory Member States, France and Great Britain, the dispute settlement mechanism, to force Tehran to return to treaty’s compliance. In addition, as the head of European diplomacy Josef Borell announced, the countries that signed the 2015 agreement on the Iranian nuclear program have agreed to hold a conciliation meeting with Tehran, in February, in order to maintain the agreement despite the US withdrawal.

Last but not least, Germany will pay more attention to developing its relations with East Asia states (China, Japan), based in particular on economic interests, as well as to restart its relations with African countries, both in terms of migration, as well as to regulate the security situation in the region (Mali).

The answer to whether the two Berlin actors will find the proper communication lines and will place the national interest above party’s one, to be able to take advantage on the opportunities that seem to bring Germany in the European and global policy forefront, is still unclear and the German leaders will find an answer to it by the end of this year.

Translated by Andreea Aoare

[1] In modern Germany with its parliamentary system of government on federal and on state level, grand coalition (German: Große Koalition) describes a governing coalition of the two biggest parties in one parliament. In most cases (but not necessarily) this means a coalition of the Union (consisting of the sister parties CDU and CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). After the inconclusive result of the 2005 German federal election, neither of the traditional coalitions could form a majority government. Another possible coalition existed, comprising the SPD, Greens, and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), but a desire to exclude the PDS, the successor party to East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party, from government (i.e. a cordon sanitaire) led the leaders of the SPD and the CDU/CSU to agree to form a grand coalition with CDU leader Angela Merkel as chancellor and an equal number of cabinet seats for each party. The second grand coalition in German history ended when, after the 2009 federal election, a coalition was agreed between the CDU/CSU and the FDP, thus forming the 2nd Merkel Cabinet. Following the 2013 election, on 27 November 2013 a third grand coalition was formed by the CDU/CSU and the SPD. Again it would have been possible to form a center-left government with the SPD, Greens, and The Left, the successor party to the PDS, but a grand coalition was formed instead. The term GroKo (shortening for Große Koalition) was named 2013 word of the year in Germany. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_coalition_(Germany)