German foreign policy and the EU: Leader by default?

Germany became the leader of Europe’s foreign policy because of circumstance, not through its own design. 

Within the European Union, Germany’s increasing political weight has been the subject of debate for several years now. Mostly, it has been attributed to the country’s economic strength and, even more so, to the crucial role played by Berlin in the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis. As the single largest creditor, facing a sceptical constituency at home, the German government’s decisions and its parliamentary backing were indispensable in enabling rescue operations for the common currency.

As its economic power has grown, Germany’s position in the EU has been labelled as hegemonic, and most serious analyses have pointed out the discrepancies within its role – Germany has towered over all decision-making on fiscal policy, but seemed unable and unwilling to take action on other major policy challenges. Germany has seemed like a reluctant leader, shying away from the responsibilities of its power and fearful of the costs of leadership.

Germany rose to the top of EU foreign policy in the context of a vacuum of leadership and by circumstance rather than by its own doing.

The 2015 edition of ECFR’s European Foreign Policy Scorecard tells a different story. Over the past four editions, Germany has been rising in the leadership ranks. This year, Berlin came out on top of the leader board, and it did so in the face of several parallel serious foreign and security policy crises, which have up until now not been known as areas of particular German engagement. The general view has it that the financial crisis and its sovereign debt fallout constituted a blow to Europe’s foreign and security policy. The German case would seem to run counter to this argument – but on second glance, there is little contradiction. Germany rose to the top of EU foreign policy in the context of a vacuum of leadership and by circumstance rather than by its own doing.

German foreign and security policy was by no means passive in the course of 2014, but it is also the case that the engagement of others has receded. In both of the key crises – Ukraine/Russia and Syria/Iraq – the United States has shown leadership restraint at best. Washington did lead on strikes against the Islamic State but not on the broader strategic challenge. A number of European countries participated in the operation, but no cleavage among “old” and “new” Europe emerged. The Obama administration looked almost European in its caution about becoming entangled in the complex linkages with Iran and Turkey of Iraq’s disintegration and Syria’s bloody civil war, or in the Israeli/Palestine conflict and Lebanese or Jordanian struggles. In this climate, Germany’s continued diplomatic engagement in the region and with Iran, as well as its readiness to support Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq with arms, became more significant than it would have been under strong US leadership.

A similar pattern emerged in the conflict over Ukraine. Unlike with the Middle East, the EU’s willingness to move ahead on relations with Ukraine had been a cause of controversy; the true target of Russia’s actions in Ukraine was to push back the EU. German foreign policy was challenged in several ways. Firstly, Berlin’s foreign policy had consistently favoured norms and rules over power in international relations. Secondly, Germany felt strongly about defending EU policy, more so than other large EU member states or the US. And thirdly, the German-Russian relationship had been significant for Germany not only in economic terms, but also politically, as a source of Berlin’s significance in the Western context. With these elements of its foreign policy under threat, and the US standing with Europe but not taking the lead, organising the EU’s response fell on to Germany.

London’s ambiguous political position within the EU, combined with the UK’s comparatively weak relationship with Russia, limited the significance of the Cameron government in crisis response.

The Ukraine crisis also revealed the changing parameters of leadership among the major European actors. The United Kingdom and France, the other two members of the EU’s “Big Three”, have declined in standing, taking second (joint with Sweden) and third place respectively in the ECFR Scorecard. London and Paris would surely have played a more significant role if the response to the crisis had involved hard security instruments, in which case both would likely have been second in line on crisis response, after the US. The mix of diplomatic means and economic sanctions favoured Germany’s leadership, precisely because of the country’s economic weight in trade with Russia, the impact of its economy within the EU and the eurozone, and, not least, France’s current weakness in those same areas. With regard to Britain, London’s ambiguous political position within the EU, combined with the UK’s comparatively weak relationship with Russia, limited the significance of the Cameron government in crisis response.

Therefore, the revision of German foreign policy strategy and practice, called for by German President Joachim Gauck at the 2014 Munich Security Conference, was not really needed to push Germany to the top of ECFR’s 2015 Scorecard – the position was already vacant. However, a rethink of German foreign policy might well be needed if Germany is to stay in the lead. One indicator of this is the resistance and concerns of other EU members – notably the EU’s eastern members – about Germany’s leading role in the conflict over Ukraine. Throughout 2014, traditional fears resurfaced about German-Russian dealings “over the heads” of the countries in between the two larger powers. Most likely, the current strong ties between Berlin and Warsaw were what kept such concerns at bay.

If this analysis holds true, Germany’s leading role in European foreign policy will be contested in future. Other major actors will become less inward-looking or absent and military contingencies will expose Germany’s limitations. Domestic support for Germany’s foreign policy should not be taken for granted and it remains an open question whether and how Germany will be able to successfully align the interests and preferences of the many smaller member states in the EU. For the time being, the German foreign policy elite’s appreciation of German leadership is tempered by concerns over the costs that the role could entail over the years to come. Committing resources to the general purposes of greatness is certainly not an attitude much favoured among Germany’s political class. Rising to the top has been enabled by circumstance; remaining there may be hindered by it.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.