Navigating the Eastern Flank without Germany?

German relegation of security and defence to non-core issues leaves European observers puzzling where Germany is heading, and how far it can be relied upon.

The Bundestag elections in September seemed initially to indicate a continuation of the status quo in Germany’s policy on Russia and the eastern neighbourhood. Although Merkel’s conservative CDU – seen as the driver of the more assertive and critical policies towards Russia – lost considerable support in the election, the prospect of a coalition with the Greens and Liberals looked set to maintain the status quo.

The Greens are vocal critics of Putin on account of their traditional emphasis on civic freedoms, democracy and open society. The Free Democrats, though subverted by Russian business interests, still have a liberal core. And in any case, containing a small party (the FDP won just 10.7 per cent of the vote) would be easier than containing the social democrats, with their 20 per cent vote share.

But with the collapse of Jamaica talks, that continuity is in question. Another grand coalition is now the expected result. But while the coalition parties might be the same, it is far from clear that the old foreign policy consensus will survive.

Even more than usual, foreign and European policy was relegated to the fringes of debate in the German campaign: the future of diesel cars occupied more airtime than the future of European integration.  This attitude continued into the coalition negotiations, where security and defence were left aside until a consensus on “core issues” could be reached.

That consensus ultimately proved unattainable, but the sequencing tells us that security and defence were not seen as core issues, and that the final position on them would have had more to do with the balance of other bargains between the parties, than to do with analysis or principles. That left European observers puzzling where Germany was heading, and how far its foreign policy could be relied upon.

The negotiations between the CDU/CSU and SPD can be expected to follow a similar pattern – but with even more destructive partisan politics.

Shattered from the defeat in the last election, Martin Schulz initially declined to take part in a new government. Most of the parties’ members and lower rank officials still support this idea – to use a spell in opposition to reinvent the party by strengthening its commitment to traditional priorities such as labour rights, welfare spending, and a pacifist foreign policy.

Such a left-leaning SPD would be a difficult coalition partner for Merkel’s CDU. With the CSU pulling her further to the right, it is hard to see how this coalition can be made to work. Either the parties pretend to be in opposition to their own government – which usually reflects badly on them in the polls – or they find a compromise in the middle, again disappointing the electorate.

Contrary to the image of Germany as the leader of Europe, Berlin since 1945 has been more reactive and passive than innovative and forthcoming.

Then there are the partisan negotiating tactics: the FDP followed a strategy of setting out maximalist demands that would ignite intra-CDU/CSU divisions. Having acquired a host of dissatisfied CDU/CSU voters in the election, the FDP thought that deepening the rifts in Merkel’s party would benefit them. It didn‘t not work in the Jamaica negotiations, but there are similar ideas within the SPD.

If the SPD can pull the CDU to the left in the coalition negotiations, the inner squabbles of the CDU/CSU will corrode their electoral base quicker than that of the Social Democrats. Hence maximalist demands – on citizens’ insurance, for example – and calls to lengthen the negotiations. The public expect Merkel to form a government, and either a failure to do so or a weak government will be seen as primarily her fault.

Will foreign and security policy be sacrosanct from the forthcoming gamesmanship? There is little indication that it will be. Thanks to Donald Trump, anti-American sentiments are at an all-time high in Germany. Yet Germany is utterly dependent on Washington for defence, nuclear deterrence, and particularly for intelligence on terrorist threats. Equally, a Russia policy more “favourable” to Moscow is popular among the German electorate. Yet policymakers know that Russian aggression constitutes a potentially mortal threat to the European order if left unchecked.

The German public consistently prefers a foreign policy of restraint, non-interference, and, particularly, no military engagement. But Germany has obligations under the Euro-Atlantic alliances, and the increasingly unstable European neighbourhood requires more military action – at least to keep the ongoing conflicts that push people to migrate to Europe in check. All these perception gaps between public opposition and policy-necessities can be used to put pressure on the chancellor or to drive a wedge between the chancellor and regional factions of the CDU (which are not held responsible for foreign policy by their constituencies).

The SPD’s base is particularly prone to anti-American, pro-Russian, and anti-military positions. And there is little indication that the party leadership is willing to confront its base on these matters.

Martin Schulz’s speech on the “United States of Europe” was a remarkable rejection of reality. First it ignores that in an ideologically contested Europe, institutional integration is far from a panacea. Second, kicking out all states that are unwilling to join the proposed new European Union would only increase the problem of an unstable and vulnerable periphery – while creating a core that is not necessarily functional. Third, to offer the other member states a “take it or leave it” choice on the German vision for Europe will be seen as German nationalism and unilateralism disguised under a blue flag. The speech rather reveals much of the SPD elite’s West German attitude towards Europe: when Martin Schulz and his companions say Europe, they really mean France. But, like it or not, Europe is bigger – and more diverse – than the Franco-German core.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was Sigmar Gabriel who has come closest to demonstrating responsibility in his speech at the Körber foundation. He stated plainly that Germany will have to step up its efforts in security and defence, and that Europeans need to be willing to defend the liberal order if they want to avoid its collapse.

Although his comments on NATO and Russia are somewhat ambiguous (sticking to the engagement policy on the one hand, and earmarking Russia as a revisionist power on the other), in the context of the inner disputes of the SPD, the speech is bold indeed. The notion that there is no future for a unilateral German “Ostpolitik” but only a European one that takes the fears and historical experiences of the Eastern neighbours into account is a clear challenge to the currents of a more populist, left-leaning SPD.

At this point in time it is hard to judge how the power games within the SPD and between the SPD and Merkel will play out. If the SPD seeks social and taxation giveaways in return for supporting the current defence and security posture (Germany’s participation in the Enhanced Forward Presence and sanctions on Russia in particular), the situation will get tricky. The core conservative electorate would rather sacrifice sanctions on Russia than increase welfare spending, but Merkel would not be willing to accept such a deal, and would probably prefer new elections.

Even if the pragmatists within the SPD win, real-world developments may leave Germany behind. NATO needs to find a proper response to Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship, and the post-ISIS Syria probably won’t be much more stable than the current one, the Kurdish issue will rise again. In Berlin, Germany needs to define its balance between interventionism (or how far it will follow France) and defence of the alliance (or how much it will invest in the East) in future German defence posture, spending, and politics. Germany’s status quo in terms of international security engagement does not provide an answer to any of these challenges.

Of course, this is nothing new for Berlin. Contrary to the image of Germany as the leader of Europe, Berlin since 1945 has been more reactive and passive than innovative and forthcoming. Decisions in Berlin are usually taken once the path has been led by others – or by events. However this time, there will be little help from outside.

Poland, once the key partner in the East, is stuck in self-imposed isolation and re-enacting the past instead of preparing for the future. Warsaw’s demise in terms of rule of law and separation of power is de-legitimising the entire argument for European transformation and enlargement to the east. Sweden, once another motor of Europe’s engagement to the East, is caught in its own soul-searching in terms of how far to engage with NATO. The French vision for European defence, meanwhile, is tailored to the interventionist role in North Africa and the Middle East.

The French vision, of course, is precisely what Washington wants from Europe. For at least as long as Trump is in power, US security policy will revolve around fighting Islamist terrorism, with European security seen as secondary. So concerning Eastern Europe there will be little helpful leadership from the West either.

German foreign policy is again at the crossroads. It would be helpful if states other than Russia showed an interest in German domestic politics. Otherwise Berlin’s international commitments may soon be diluted in favour of domestic consensus on welfare taxation, citizens’ insurance, or new emission stickers for diesel cars. new emission stickers for diesel cars.


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


Senior Policy Fellow

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