Berlin’s (and Europe’s) positioning between Russia, China, and the new US administration has created an unusual amount of geopolitical debate in Germany at the beginning of this crucial election year.
While this partly reflects Germany’s increased role in global politics over the last 15 years, international issues still tend to play an ultimately limited role in domestic elections. This was true even at the height of the Eurozone crisis; the exception was the 2002 decision not to join the US invasion of Iraq.
It was, therefore, noteworthy that the first dose of public scrutiny for the newly elected leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), Armin Laschet, consisted of inquiries into previous statements on Russia and also the war in Syria. The state PM of North Rhine-Westphalia – home to many companies with close ties to Russia and to Nord Stream 2, specifically – was attacked for having advocated talks with Moscow.
Just like his main competitor for the Merkel succession, Bavarian state PM Markus Soeder, Laschet’s track record on Russia suggests continuity with the current chancellor. Merkel is committed both to European sanctions over Ukraine and to keeping economic and talking channels open with Russia.
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats (SPD) want to avoid the topic altogether, given the controversial lobbying engagement of their former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. This leaves an opening for the Greens. Their tough line vis-à-vis Russia is based on human rights concerns, opposition to gas as a perhaps cleaner, yet not entirely CO2-free resource – and on vote-seeking strategies.
After the unfortunate performance by the EU’s chief foreign policy representative in Moscow, the mutual extradition of diplomats, and with the March EU leaders’ summit looming, the Russia debate will continue in Germany. The Greens hope that this helps them win further liberal middle-class voters from CDU and SPD.
Despite US sanctions, however, the non-completion of Nord Stream 2 remains unlikely for now. EU energy regulation limits, among other things, the maximum capacity for connecting pipelines distributing gas onwards from Nord Stream. Ukraine gets supplied via Western reverse flows, and Berlin insists that Russia continue channeling some supplies via Ukraine.
On this basis, many in Berlin remain optimistic that the new US administration will eventually focus on pressuring Germany in other areas of concern, from military spending to trade. Most importantly, Berlin expects even greater scrutiny for Europe’s positioning vis-à-vis China, especially after the completion of the much-debated investment agreement on the last meters of Germany’s EU Council presidency last year.
Meanwhile, domestic attention for geopolitics does not equal an elevated strategic debate culture in Germany. While a liberal camp tends to criticize “too much” talk with Moscow, Laschet, in his previous remarks, had complained there was “too little”. What remains entirely unanswered, however, is the question: too much/little for what?
Neither side of the domestic German debate would seriously want to raise hopes of Russia retreating from Crimea or turning a blind eye on developments in Belarus, for instance. Some of this is, however, remains the stated goal of existing EU sanctions.
However, the definition of a more realistic set of expectations vis-à-vis Moscow remains unlikely to develop in this election year. Germany will stick to the middle ground for now, but the pressure could become even greater under a government involving the Greens.