German foreign policy after Paris

Following Paris attacks, Germany once again faces a question of identity over its foreign and security policy

Following the Paris attacks, two of the most fundamental and highly controversial debates in Germany have begun to overlap.

The first debate is about migration, and is putting Chancellor Merkel under growing pressure within her own party, and her coalition government. The controversy concerns the ongoing arrival of refugees, many of them from war torn Syria, and the limitations of Germany’s absorption capacity. Many have questioned whether the chancellor has put the public order (“öffentliche Ordnung”) in the country at risk. All these aspects are widely discussed in the public. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the fear of a “Kontrollverlust” (loss of control) over access to and movement within Germany has put the public on even greater alert, and the government under further stress. A terrorist threat that led to the cancellation of a football match between Germany and the Netherlands earlier this week has also played its part in raising fear levels among the public.

The second debate is about Germany’s role in European security. Is Berlin doing enough to provide European security, or is it mostly benefitting from a security order that others are willing to build and defend, even with human lives if it comes to it? There is a fundamental difference now to previous episodes in this debate. While in the past, German engagement in conflicts and wars was largely abstract for Germans (“Why should we defend our interests at the Hindu Kush?”, to refer to the Afghanistan debate more than a decade ago), now the link to other parts of the world has become very tangible. People are fleeing war torn Syria and the horror of the Islamic State, and Germans feel the impact in their local communities, where the authorities, NGOs and indeed citizens are struggling to keep up with the numbers of refugees and to support the needs of newcomers. At this stage Angela Merkel’s political future is tied to the management of this crisis.

The horror of Paris has meant that both migration and security policy are now connected. The French and the German people feel the impact of a country and region sinking into chaos, but in very different ways. What, then, is Germany’s contribution to ending the war in Syria? Up until now, the response of the federal government has largely been political. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier continues to engage in active diplomacy to support a negotiated solution in Syria. Given the impact of the Paris attacks, the latest round of talks in Vienna has indeed given reason for cautious optimism.

However, since early this week the military option has been on the table, and Berlin is under pressure to respond. Paris has called for article 42.7 of the EU Treaty to be applied. The article stipulates that “if a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations charter”. In theory, even compared to NATO’s article 5, this is a strong obligation.

Over the past few days there have been a whole host of interpretations of Paris’ intentions, and EU capitals are now discussing their respective contributions to this precedent of EU law. Paris is now insisting that we look at the terrorist threat and the war in Syria jointly as Europeans – and by putting forward the Treaty of Lisbon, Paris knows that Berlin will feel a particularly strong responsibility. Now we see Lisbon in motion – and the perrenial claim of the past years “to exploit the potential of Lisbon” forces Berlin to bring to life these theoretical provisions. The true scope of this question about EU cooperation is much larger than just thinking about what a meaningful and effective military contribution to support France’s policy of intervention might be (the German government has already committed to stepping up its mission in Mali and in the Central African Republic, but a direct support of the bombing of Islamic State in Syria is unlikely).

Sending a strong political signal about the seriousness of article 42.7 will be equally important, since the direct implications of the article in terms of procedures, timing and concrete obligations has been (and remains) very vague. The response to 42.7 needs to be proactive and dynamic. After all, the way the article is employed now will determine whether it will matter in the future of European security or not, and whether, indeed, the overall EU framework matters. The many critics who question whether there can be any meaningful EU approach to security (be it intergovernmental or supranational) have strong arguments to suggest that CSDP has always been an illusion.

Demonstrating that EU membership matters when it comes to security by responding to France’s call is about much more than fighting the Islamic State. Since the annexation of Crimea the European security order has been endangered, heavy migration flows have triggered fundamental questions about the EU’s external borders and the attacks in Paris have now shown that European societies are also vulnerable from within. Who will ultimately guarantee our security in Europe? EU countries such as Finland or Sweden, both of who are not NATO members, will be carefully watching how the EU and its most powerful member states deal with the article 42.7 precedent.

It seems that for the moment the domestic pressure Angela Merkel felt even within her own party and government regarding the refugee situation has been alleviated somewhat. With the new terrorist threat on top of the already difficult agenda, leading figures (with a few exceptions) have started once more to sing from the same hymn sheet. It is in times of crisis that executive power has to show its strength (“Krisen sind die Stunde der Exekutive”).

In Germany, this means that Angela Merkel and her government now have to address not only one, but two domestically controversial policies at the same time: to preserve a liberal refugee policy and to make the case for Germany as a security actor along with its EU partners. Whatever the outcome, this is a highly formative time for the identity of Germany as a country, and of its European, foreign and security policy.  


For more information on article 42.7 and what it means for EU member states see ECFR’s explainer here

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

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