Recent months have seen much soul-searching in Berlin about Germany’s new political instability. With Europe deeply divided, in a post-American world, the bloc’s anchor of stability appears to be failing the continent – at the very moment that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has put forth his vision for saving the European project.
Yet Germany’s crisis of government could, paradoxically, turn out to be an opportunity for bringing Europe together. A third grand coalition (or any other form of cooperation between Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats) could end up not only unifying the country’s political currents, but also bring together some of the competing factions in the European Union by forging a grand bargain between: the fiscal discipline of the northern and western Europeans (in the form of the Christian Democrats); the social conservatism of eastern Europeans (in the form of the Christian Social Union); and the solidarity and European federalism of southern Europeans (via the Social Democrats).
Of course, Berlin must try to generate a positive response to Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for reforming the EU, particularly on economic and monetary policy. Ever since Germany’s long-serving finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble left office to become president of the Bundestag, it has become conceivable to think of going beyond cosmetic changes in order to truly reform the euro group.
But the German government will find that the greatest potential for protecting and relaunching Europe lies in foreign policy. The refugee crisis, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Donald Trump’s attacks on the liberal world order have threatened the EU’s very foundation. Indeed, the CDU/CSU and the SPD could lay the foundations for an escape from the political gridlock that has held Europe back over these three central issues. Germany’s new government will be in an unprecedented position to reunite the EU during this process – and here, the German culture of consensus politics can play a key role in shaping the European dialogue.
It is precisely the spirit of a new grand coalition (with a more balanced distribution of power between the two parties and a mandate for European reform) that could make such far-reaching compromise among disparate member states possible.
Fortress Europe or open doors?
The refugee crisis shook Germany to its core and left the country sharply polarised. Berlin must identify a broad solution that reconciles the protection of Germany’s borders and the repatriation of rejected asylum seekers with the introduction of legal migration routes that will help combat smuggling operations in Africa and the Middle East. An agreement between the CDU/CSU and the SPD on this question would have to include all of these aspects and therefore could also bring together groups in Europe that have been at odds: the front-line states of Greece and Italy, the Liberals of Sweden and Germany, and the sceptics of eastern Europe. It would help reframe the debate away from a clash between proponents of both ‘open’ and a ‘closed’ Europe into an attempt to develop a common migration system that would honour the bloc’s humanitarian duties while preventing further migration crises.
Together they must show European citizens that the EU’s top priority is to protect its external borders. Thousands more experts at Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency, could assist national authorities. This step should be complemented by visible security measures, including a more powerful European public prosecutor’s office and closer cooperation between national intelligence services.
However, securing the bloc’s external borders alone will not be enough. The key to a successful migration policy lies in the principle of ‘admission for readmission’, a concept enshrined in the 2016 EU-Turkey migration agreement. Even though that pact has not yet been fully implemented, Germany and the EU could reach similar agreements with Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Senegal, which are all key countries of origin and transit in current migration patterns. These agreements disincentivise illegal smuggling and uncontrolled migration by providing support for governments and the promise of legal channels. If implemented in conjunction with a modern immigration law, these agreements would help the EU regain control over migration and relieve the undue burden on transit countries.
They would also help alleviate Germany’s problems with deporting rejected asylum seekers back to their home country. But ‘admission for readmission’ will only work if the EU commits to broad partnership agreements with governments in the Middle East, north Africa, and the Sahel region on deepening development work, peacekeeping operations, and good governance.
If Germany truly wants to address the root causes of migration, the country will also have to champion a far larger European role in the Middle East, a region where American and European interests are drifting further apart and Russia has emerged as the power broker.
Europe must seek to stabilise as many regions in Syria as quickly as possible, by working to prioritise de-escalation, rather than pursuing regime change. And promoting a new, decentralised political order in Syria would see Germany working with the international community to mediate between local rulers and aid reconstruction in some areas. Europe could also put alleviating sanctions against the Assad regime on the table to incentivise stabilisation.
In order to stabilise as many Syrian regions as possible, Germany and the EU must swiftly identify the levers that they have to expand their influence in the conflict. Any solution would have to involve at least indirectly acknowledging Russia’s role in Syria, as well as more German and European stabilisation and economic aid. None of this, however, can be given away for free. All of these measures need to contribute to the protection of Europe.
Russia and Turkey: Red line policy
Both Russia and Turkey have emerged as challengers to a liberal European order, but they are also both – in very different ways – key stakeholders for European security. Turkey is a member of NATO and an EU candidate while Russia is neither, so there will need to be different policy solutions for each. But the fact that the EU has complex relations with both at this time of instability is a big vulnerability for EU security. Rather than assuming that Russia and Turkey will be transformed by Europe, the EU needs a set of policies that allows it to work with them on areas of joint interest while defending limited, but firm, red lines.
The previous German government, by bringing along its own divided parties, managed to rally a deeply divided Europe behind sanctions on Russia, and, against the odds, succeeded in defending them for many years. It is clear that this helped to stabilise the conflict in Ukraine and deter further aggression. It now needs to build on this as well as finding a similar way of reconciling the competing European factions on Turkey.
One of the great dangers of the Trump era is the emergence of a power vacuum in Europe that could allow Russia to test America’s security guarantees on the continent. Germany has taken on ever more responsibility in recent years, but its persistently inadequate military capabilities and prevailing pacifism among many Germans has kept the country hesitant towards military interventionism. In the Baltic states, Poland, and eastern European member states, trust in the West is waning.
In order to rebuild trust, Germany needs to lead solidarity with the states on the front-line.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline project between Russia and Germany must be reconciled with the European Energy Union, an initiative to ensure sustainable energy security across the bloc. If Germany wants to issue a clear signal that it will protect European unity it could lead a joint military exercise modelled on “ReforGer” (“Return of Forces to Germany”), a NATO manoeuvre from the cold war era. Back then, NATO allies simulated the logistics of defending Germany against a Soviet invasion. Today, Germany’s partners fear for their territorial integrity and the German Bundeswehr has a tradition of “Landesverteidigung”: territorial defence. Europe requires exactly those defensive abilities now. It would be a symbolic move, less about military logistics and more about demonstrating Germany’s leadership in Europe and its interest in reassuring its eastern partners.
But there are also limits to the current policy regime of sanctions and strategic reassurance. It has not managed to end the violence in eastern Ukraine, nor has it ensured dialogue with Moscow on stabilising Libya and Syria.
The incoming federal government should also explore ways of stepping up engagement. One goal should be to explore a new de-escalation initiative in the embattled Ukrainian region of Donbas. In September 2017, Russia proposed sending UN peacekeepers to Donbas to secure peace. It was likely a tactical manoeuvre, but for the first time in years there is an opportunity to stabilise the conflict. It is in Europe’s interest to freeze the conflict at this point, and only peacekeepers will effectively do so.
The new German government should accept the Russian proposal but demand a far larger peacekeeping mission, one that covers all of eastern Ukraine, not merely the line of contact between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian units. In addition, the EU should appoint a special envoy for Ukraine. This should be someone with the stature of Wolfgang Ischinger or Martti Ahtisaari who represents neither Brussels’ interests nor those of any specific European government. He or she could help build the confidence necessary to freeze the conflict. The United States is already one step ahead on this issue, having appointed its own special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker.
A trade revolution
The most significant challenge facing Europe today is Trump’s attack on the liberal world order. Trump’s policies have upset this order on questions of trade, climate protection, and nuclear non-proliferation in particular.
Berlin alone cannot step into the role of leader of the free world. But the new government can unite with other powers to defend some key achievements of the liberal order – and to take some of the wind out of the sails of its critics. A key plank of this is to show that the EU will protect its citizens and states from the dark side of interdependence. The two key ways to do this are to think about protecting social standards and physical security.
On the first, critics of the EU portray the bloc as the manifestation of globalisation without protection for workers, citizens, and the environment. The buzzwords in France are le dumping social and le dumping fiscal.
One part of addressing this is to change the emphasis of EU trade policy: instead of serving as the symbol of free trade, the EU should become the guarantor of fair trade – and a grand coalition in Berlin would have just the tools to steer this change. The ratification of free trade agreements – whether with Canada, Vietnam, the Mercosur bloc in south America, or Mexico – depends on whether European citizens see them as a danger or a chance to mitigate the effects of globalisation.
It will therefore be especially important to maintain high European standards of environmental protection and labour legislation when dealing with external contractors, while shielding our own citizens from wage and social dumping within the common European market. Protection against foreign investment in sectors of strategic importance has also been part of the change in emphasis in EU trade policy.
To this end, the European Commission presented proposals in September 2017 that aim to protect European companies from takeover by Chinese state-owned companies. Europe has the potential to become, and should become, a regulatory superpower in the digital age. The economic and social progress of the last few decades has been critically shaped by companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook; due to their turnover and their influence, these companies have risen to the status of large, powerful countries. The EU is the only legal jurisdiction with the will and power to protect its values and its societies from the negative effects of the digital age, and regulators around the globe follow its rulings on cases involving Apple or Facebook.
The other side of a Europe that protects is physical security. The most existential element of this is nuclear weapons. Germany’s new government must also resolutely defend the nuclear agreement with Iran. It is one of the greatest achievements of European diplomacy and, if Washington threatens the deal, the worst-case scenario is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. At the global level, the end of the JCPOA could spell the end of non-proliferation. If the US breaks the agreement, Brussels, together with Moscow and Beijing, must isolate Washington diplomatically and possibly compensate Iran for the economic damage it would suffer. Aid from the European Investment Bank could come into play.
If the US sanctions European companies for doing business with Iran, the EU will have to respond with its own sanctions against US businesses. This policy would require great tact and diplomacy to prevent a trade war with the Trump administration, but just acquiescing to huge damage to European interests and the global non-proliferation regime is no option. The EU could also enact a blocking regulation and consider banning European companies from complying with US sanctions legislation.
As well as pushing for common measures on non-proliferation, terrorism, and border controls, Germany’s next government also has the opportunity to make important progress in European defence policy that goes well beyond the timid beginnings of permanent structured cooperation. In this area, too, the EU is divided, but reforms are possible. There is a big debate about what Germany does with its own defence spending. But just as important as this is the signal that Germany sends to other member states. One powerful way of incentivising greater investment would be for defence expenditures to be excluded from the Maastricht criteria, to allow for additional investments. Protecting defence spending from those budgetary caps would accommodate the southern Europeans and give a big boost to the EU’s defence policy.
A new grand coalition of CDU, CSU, and SPD would not represent all currents of European politics. Martin Schulz is not Alexis Tsipras and Horst Seehofer is not Victor Orban. Yet the German spirit of compromise and consensus could ensure that Europe grows closer once again, and protects itself from danger more effectively. However, this will require the next German government to think much bigger than any German government in the post-war era.
The article was first published by the Berlin Policy Journal on 10 January 2018.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.