Looking at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s flight schedule for the week beginning 5 February, you might mistake it for that of the European Union’s High Representative. In one of her most exhausting weeks in office, Merkel travelled 22,000 kilometres in one week – evidence of Germany’s leadership in Europe and its commitment to a coherent European foreign policy, which these days is more and more focused on the EU’s eastern borders and neighbours. Merkel travelled with France’s President François Hollande, first to Kyiv to get Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko on board, and then on to Moscow for preliminary negotiations on a deal over Ukraine with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In doing so, the chancellor demonstrated European foreign policy at its best: indefatigable travelling diplomacy, in which unlimited hours of talks were paired with very limited hours of sleep. The fact that she was accompanied by the French president underlined her willingness to present this as a European operation – but in terms of conducting assertive policy, Hollande’s absence would not have made much of a difference.
Of even greater importance has been the tactical shift that Merkel has made in the geo-strategic game between the West and Russia. In recent months, she has acted bad cop to the good cop of her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose party, the SPD, is traditionally much closer to Russia and much more understanding of its interests. But then, the United States Congress and US President Barack Obama – whatever the president’s personal opinion as to the viability of the notion – threatened to polarise the conflict by supplying arms to Ukraine, in a move that had echoes of the Cold War. This allowed Merkel to slip into the role of good cop. Given the limits of economic sanctions as one of the strongest tools of EU foreign policy, Merkel needed this contribution from Europe’s transatlantic ally to boost her bargaining power for the (for now) final meeting with Putin in Minsk. Obama obliged, and supported the chancellor’s strategy by making it clear during Merkel’s visit in Washington that all options were on the table.
Merkel arrived in Belarus buoyed up by her impressive week’s travelling, Obama’s support, the backing of her EU-28 colleagues, and the approval of the German public.
Merkel arrived in Belarus buoyed up by her impressive week’s travelling, Obama’s support, the backing of her EU-28 colleagues, and the approval of the German public, of which 65 percent support sanctions against Russia and 78 percent distrust Moscow. With the Minsk agreement that resulted, she may have reached her peak as “chancellor of Europe”. For the time being, Merkel has conquered the longstanding logic of geo-economic-driven German foreign policy in favour of the “Primat der Politik”, the primacy of politics, in the words of Eckhard Cordes, chairman of the Ost-Ausschuss der deutschen Wirtschaft (Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations). German companies would like to see a return to “business as usual” sooner rather than later, but after Merkel’s commitment, the German government has no alternative to supporting further sanctions if the ceasefire is not implemented as agreed and if Russia is seen as not putting pressure on the separatists to comply with Minsk II. Furthermore, as a next step, Berlin might consider providing more financial support to Ukraine to reward it for compliance (which would imply more technical assistance to Kyiv so as to ensure it absorbs resources effectively). On both issues, Germany will have to lead in the EU to protect its position, which could require overruling hesitations or concerns over sanctions from other EU member states such as Greece, Hungary, or the Czech Republic.
Germany will have to lead in the EU to protect its position, which could require overruling hesitations or concerns over sanctions from other EU member states.
After years of muddling through, current events have forced Angela Merkel to abandon ambiguity and to put forward a clear German position on European foreign policy – a move for which Europe has been waiting for quite some time.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.