Frau Merkel goes to Africa

Domestic concerns over migration have sharpened Berlin's interest in Africa.

Last week saw a strong demonstration of Germany’s new interest in cooperating with African countries beyond a development agenda. While Chancellor Merkel has already visited Africa on a number of occasions during her more than 10 years in office, her interest this time was driven by an issue of vital importance for Germany itself – migration.

One of Merkel’s central domestic challenges is to fulfill her promise of “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”) in managing the impact of people on the move. Last week she set off to demonstrate that Berlin is going well beyond the EU agreement with Turkey in its efforts to better handle current and future migration into Europe, by tackling the root causes of migration.

Merkel’s delegation, including her chief adviser on migration, set off on 9 October for a three-day official visit to Mali (where she also met with the German contingent of the UN Mission in Mali), Niger (where the delegation paid a visit to the IOM’s regional office as well as again met with German soldiers) and Ethiopia (where Merkel inaugurated a building of the African Union financed by the federal government). Back in Berlin, the Chancellor received the presidents of Chad and Nigeria later in the week.

The Chancellery made sure that there was a great deal of coverage of Merkel’s messages in and from Africa. Senior journalists accompanying the chancellor covered the trip, and her spokesperson Steffen Seibert meticulously documented it on Twitter. Before setting off, the chancellor explained yet again the foreign dimension of her migration policy in an interview with DIE ZEIT, responding to a growing sense among Germans that she seemed to care more about others than about the German people: “If as the German chancellor I want to make sure that Germans are doing well, and that we keep the EU together, I also need to ensure that Europe’s neighbourhood is in a state that allows people to really feel at home in their homeland (Heimat)”.

While the media coverage in Germany largely focused on the refugee angle, the wider geopolitical and security dimension is more notable. ECFR’s Josef Janning called the visit a sign of a “strategic shift” in Berlin’s Africa policy in a recent interview with La Croix, and there are indeed a number of developments beyond the refugee crisis that underpin this view.

Over the past decade, Germany has become more of a stakeholder in contributing to African security. But the events of the last three years, with the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks on European soil, have accelerated the strategic security debate in Berlin, including on Africa. In January 2016, following France’s request for solidarity in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November 2015, the federal government extended the mandate of the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and raised the German contingent by a significant number. During her trip, Angela Merkel visited the German soldiers contributing to the European Training Mission (EUTM) as well as to MINUSMA in both Bamako and Niamey.

The wider context is reflected in the recent Franco-German defense initiative of Ministers of Defense Ursula von der Leyen and Jean-Yves Le Drian. Paris and Berlin jointly proposed that relations with European, African and North African partners should be improved to support them in peace, security and development in the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa. The joint paper by foreign ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault following the UK’s Brexit vote in June 2016 carried a similar message. Chancellor Merkel additionally declared that Africa will play an important role during Germany’s G20 presidency in 2017.

African security matters at home, or as the German chancellor put it more positively, “Africa’s wellbeing is in Germany’s interest” – this is a compelling message for Germans back home, many of whom perhaps look at Africa as the origin of the next major refugee crisis. This means that the interest of the German government in having a presence on the ground has grown significantly. And this also means that Berlin will follow closely other players’ engagements in the region. Quite naturally, this will go beyond European countries and include more difficult partners such as China. ECFR’s recent policy brief “Into Africa: China’s global security shift“ argued that there is now an opportunity for European countries to positively engage China in African security. But no doubt Berlin, undergoing its own shift, will also be carefully assessing areas of conflict with a more active Beijing.

Coming back to the European angle, as ECFR’s Manuel Lafont Rapnouil argued in a recent commentary, Paris was expecting Berlin to “just do it” – and will perhaps welcome Chancellor Merkel sending out messages now that are not first and foremost about development aid and investment (interestingly, German businesses were not invited to join the trip, and Merkel shot down the recent vision of her development minister for a “Marshall Plan for Africa”). Having said that, the question is how Paris will react once Berlin does further strengthen its engagement in African security.

An hour-long discussion aired on German national public radio Deutschlandfunk this week that included Nico Fried, a journalist with Süddeutsche Zeitung who had just returned from the trip, and Günter Nooke, the personal representative of the Chancellor for Africa, revealed some interesting insights. Nooke argued that indeed the French dominance in relations with francophone Africa did create irritations at times in Berlin, and suggested these should be openly discussed by both capitals. If Berlin in the coming months adds further substance to its presence in Africa, Franco-German cooperation might find some turbulence injected into their smooth ride thus far.

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.