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July 15, 2021

Europe

GERMANY: Geopolitical prospects beyond Merkel

BY Carsten Nickel

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( 4 mins)
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel has arrived in Washington for her first official visit since the inauguration of US President Joe Biden.
  • At the same time, this is likely to be Merkel’s final trip to the US before her 16 years at the chancellery come to an end after the September Bundestag elections.
  • Beyond the immediate issues on the agenda for Merkel and Biden, the bigger question will be how the broad parameters of Germany’s geopolitical positioning will evolve under the next government.

Geopolitical questions will be on the agenda, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Germany and Russia, transatlantic coordination in relations with China, and the global fight against the pandemic. However, major announcements are unlikely on each of these topics.

Nord Stream 2 keeps edging ever closer to completion, and Germany will respond to the temporary US sanctions waiver with additional support for Ukraine and Eastern Europe. The EU investment agreement with China – negotiated by Merkel at the very end of Germany’s presidency of the Council of the EU last year – is on ice amid resistance from the European Parliament, but Europe remains hesitant to join the US in its more clear-cut positioning vis-a-vis Beijing. Finally, Merkel remains hesitant on US proposals for vaccine patent waivers, amid concerns over the effects on private sector innovation, and given that US vaccine exports remain far behind those of the EU.

Change is already under way

With Merkel on her way out, however, the most important question during her visit will not be what the chancellor agrees with Biden, but to which degree the next German government will continue to pursue Merkel’s path on these and related geopolitical issues. The Greens are especially important to watch in this context, given that the next government will in all likelihood feature a green foreign minister, if not chancellor. The party’s approach to foreign policy appears to be more values-driven than that of Merkel’s Christian alliance (CDU/CSU) and its current coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD). Overall, this might lend itself to even more complex relations with Beijing and Moscow, but also with complicated partners such as Turkey.

At the same time, the substantial degree of change might remain limited. Germany may have long been more interested in maintaining channels of communication with “autocratic” leaders than, for instance, the US; but even in established parties, criticism of countries such as China has become much more vocal. One recent example was the broad political push for greater government supervisory powers on foreign investments in telecoms infrastructure. This was driven, among others, by the SPD’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and the CDU’s chairman of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee, Norbert Roettgen. By onboarding their concerns, Merkel managed to prevent an outright “lex Huawei.” But even under her traditional “grand coalition,” the day and age of a narrow focus on China as a growth market for German exports is over.

Continued compromise

Coalition politics, the decentralized setup of German political parties and the close involvement of organized interest groups mean that comparable compromise solutions are likely to prevail under a different coalition. This will likely continue to yield an overall approach that is more critical towards countries such as China. However, it will stop well short of turning outright confrontational. Business interests are one important factor in this context. Other reasons include a broad consensus around multilateral solutions and a continued skepticism towards military spending, especially among those left-leaning and liberal parties that tend to be most critical of non- democratic regimes.

Finally, on questions such as military drones and defense spending, for instance, parts of the Greens can be highly critical of Germany’s Western partners. Moreover, cooperation with non-democratic countries will be required if the climate agenda is to be advanced on a global level. In short, under the next government, the tone might continue to evolve, but the broad parameters of Germany’s geopolitical positioning will only change very gradually, if at all.

A question of experience?

Meanwhile, Merkel’s parting visit might throw a spotlight on a key factor beyond policy positions: her level of personal experience. The CDU/CSU’s candidate Armin Laschet boasts significant experience as leader of Germany’s largest regional state, while SPD candidate Olaf Scholz can point to his track record as Merkel’s vice chancellor and finance minister. In contrast, neither Liberal (FDP) leader Christian Lindner nor the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock boast comparable experience.

While this will not necessarily create significant problems, recent years have seen examples of even long-time politicians struggling, at least initially, upon entering senior government positions with international exposure. But during 16 years of Merkel, expectations of German leadership in Europe and on global issues have steadily increased. Such raised expectations are definitely a factor to keep in mind when assessing the next government’s cabinet line-up.