German leaders juggle foreign policy crises

The German government has proven itself adept at juggling foreign policy crises, but as it reaches the halfway point of its term, it is more important than ever that nothing gets dropped.

The Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats is nearing its halfway mark, and a sense of discomfort is emerging from Berlin. The major domestic pieces of legislation have been completed: the minimum wage, early retirement at 63 years of age, a balanced budget. That leaves two proposals pending, neither of which is likely to raise much enthusiasm among the electorate: a general toll on all of Germany’s motorways and the mass storage of communication data – the latter being the second attempt of legislators after their first was shot down by the European Court of Justice.

To the dismay of planners and spin doctors, the biggest challenges in the two years before the next general election seem likely to come from the international agenda. Crisis management on the European stage has contributed largely to raising Chancellor Angela Merkel’s standing at home – and to some degree has also benefited the Social Democrat and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But as international crises come to a head, they bring risks with them.

Merkel’s and Germany’s strength has been the will and ability to buy time.

Germany is perceived as leading Europe more so than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Achilles’ heel of its leadership is currently being exposed. Merkel’s and Germany’s strength has been the will and ability to buy time, to prevent matters from getting out of hand, to keep the ball from falling to the ground. In recent years, German foreign policy, on Europe and elsewhere, has excelled in keeping the door open – open for a solution to emerge, or open for the crisis to dissipate. This has been the approach to the Greek debt, to Russian interference in Ukraine, to the British assault on freedom of movement, to the Iranian nuclear programme, and to the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria. Germany has taken initiatives when necessary, has worked towards making new arrangements and agreements, and has even taken the risk of failure – not as the end of a problem, but rather to allow for another round of cooperative crisis resolution.

In this approach, Berlin is like a juggler, and its ability to keep the clubs spinning in the air is generally admired. Merkel and her government are tossing up about a half dozen clubs at this point, some of which they have been juggling for quite a while. But having to handle a bigger number for a longer time – that’s precisely the scenario that every juggler fears, knowing full well that some of the spectators’ attention comes from their anticipation of failure. As in so many ways, politics is even more challenging than this: the issues being juggled can change in weight and shape, and their direction cannot always be calculated. Not failing is an art, and a longer performance lends itself to the mastery of the art.

Merkel is open to the use of the term “more Europe”, but she is not known for federalist ambitions.

Merkel has thus been offered the chance to elevate herself to grand master status. The unity and identity of the European Union, both key drivers of the German commitment to Europe, are at stake. Centrifugal trends challenge Europeans on both fronts, but their willingness and readiness to consider centripetal counter-balancing remains weak. Merkel is open to the use of the term “more Europe”, but she is not known for federalist ambitions. She may have to choose between two options, neither of which she really likes: either to devise a more robust intergovernmentalism to bring the outliers into line, risking the rise of anti-German sentiments, or to invest in deeper integration, risking resentment among the public, not least in her own country.

The potential for escalation of the main conflicts with which German leaders are juggling means that these calculations may have to be made.

–      The situation in Greece is approaching a tipping point. The current parameters for extending the time span for the Syriza government can hardly be maintained beyond June 2015. Berlin wants to allow Athens to exhaust all the “wrong” approaches to its sovereign debt problem so that Alexis Tsipras can finally come to the “right” answer. But sustaining that position is growing harder by the month. If juggling should fail, eurozone governance will need more integration, if only so it can deal with state insolvency. Already, the need for the consolidation of previous steps is clear. Germany would have to advance a co-competence for the EU on national budgets.

–      The Minsk II agreement on eastern Ukraine is extremely fragile. Both sides interpret the provisions in their favour, and mutual suspicion runs deep. Berlin trusts the Ukrainian leadership more than the Kremlin, but Kyiv’s reliability is showing limits. Decentralisation is not progressing, which could hand Moscow a pretext to escalate the conflict. Other actors could complicate matters still further. The European Commission seems unwilling to engage Russia on issues related to the implementation of the Association Agreement with Ukraine. The presence of military advisors from the United States and the United Kingdom could help restore Ukrainian policymakers’ belief that they can decide the conflict on military terms. Berlin strongly believes in a negotiated resolution as the only feasible way ahead. Its resolve on this could be put to the test almost any day soon.

–      When Nicolas Sarkozy conceived the Union for the Mediterranean without the participation of Europe north of the Alps, Angela Merkel insisted that Germany was a Mediterranean country, because of the EU’s single market and political ambition. Now, this positioning has been verified by the refugee crisis and the divisions among EU member states over policy and practice on asylum. Germany wants to uphold the Dublin system and the obligations it lays down for member states to register, properly admit, or return migrants arriving on their soil. However, Berlin must realise that the capacity of Mediterranean EU countries has reached its limits, even as the numbers of asylum seekers in Germany shoot up. A majority in the European Council is unwilling to agree to EU-wide resettlement schemes. Germany, for the time being, is hesitating on a more pro-active stance and is not leading the EU towards a common border police or a common asylum policy. Evidently, the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya are fuelling the flow of refugees and human trafficking, but Germany is not pushing for stronger action by Europeans.

–      Related to the migration challenge, British pressure on the EU’s internal mobility rules is causing concern in Germany for two reasons. Firstly, this pressure is seen as a way to put the EU acquis into question, threatening to reverse the integration momentum triggered by the single market. Secondly, the German political class views the British move as the most obvious indication of the impact of populism on EU affairs. Populist sentiment is pushing mainstream parties in Europe’s north to the right and complicating consensus building among EU governments, not just on mobility, but on wider issues of immigration, on eurozone financial assistance, and on the sanctions regime against Russia. Merkel finds no consolation in the message that most Britons are not interested in the EU membership issue continuously pushed by UKIP – in light of Germany’s strong interest in the EU, any gamble with membership or the integration status quo means trouble.

–      The twists of big data and US intelligence operations continue to be an irritant in German politics. Government circles could hardly have been surprised by the latest public revelations about the German secret service allegedly supporting US surveillance of German industry. But the damage to the public view of German-American relations has been substantial. As the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) move into a decisive stage, the ongoing crisis of trust across the Atlantic is weakening the German government’s support for TTIP. Should the negotiations be drawn out into 2017, its position on TTIP could even become a tipping point for the Berlin coalition. The Social Democrats have repeatedly given TTIP a conditional endorsement, but party members might force the leadership to change its position in light of the widespread criticism of TTIP from the German public.

Merkel has created the need to keep juggling for as long as the crises remain unresolved.

All these crises mean that the German leadership will be on the spot over the coming period. Chancellor Merkel will find little chance to return to her comfort zone as she approaches her decision to run for a fourth term. So far, by juggling critical issues, she has succeeded in buying time for more crisis management. But by doing so, Merkel has created the need to keep juggling for as long as the crises remain unresolved. Seen from another angle, juggling the issues also buys time for Germany to adjust to its new role in Europe, or for Europe to come to terms with a Germany that leads. The outcome of this act, too, is so far unclear.

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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