The Domestic Compulsions Of Germany’s World Vision: Can Scholz Cement The Work Done By Merkel?

By Amb. Gurjit Singh

Germany elected a new three-party coalition to power. This is unprecedented and brings together the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which backs liberal economic policies

All the parties have been in past governments. For the last decade, the SPD was the junior coalition partner of Merkel’s CDU; the Greens, last participated in an SPD government from 1998 to 2005.

In the post-Merkel era, this new government will be judged for its policy continuity and possible changes in approach. Not only has the steady hand of Angela Merkel left the Chancellery in Berlin, but the neighborhood of Germany and the globe are more uncertain places.

The German coalition needs to address sectoral and strategic issues in a dynamic atmosphere. What would be the main currents of Germany’s strategic outlook in 2022?

Looking Beyond Borders

The neighborhood comes first. This includes the European Union. Both Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock began their international forays by visits to Paris and Brussels. France and Poland, the Weimar triangle of Germany’s immediate neighbors, as well as Austria and Italy would remain important. Brussels is important for the EU and NATO located there.

Germany would use the first half of 2022 to consolidate its position in Europe. In this period, France would chair the EU but would also hold Presidential elections in April. Austria, Italy and Poland all have different domestic problems. Germany would engage with the emerging leaderships in them to maintain a friendly neighborhood.

In his policy speech at the Bundestag, on December 15, Chancellor Scholz, expressed a commitment to the European project. This will be a major plank of German strategy, to do more with a common EU foreign and strategic policy. German interests are defined within European interests.

Germany would refocus on the three major powers, the US, China and Russia and decide how it wants to reorient its strategy towards them. Merkel had been at the receiving end of Trump’s criticism. Scholz and Biden have a more pragmatic relationship as witnessed at their brief meeting at the Democracy Summit.

File:2018-03-12 Unterzeichnung des Koalitionsvertrages der 19. Wahlperiode des Bundestages by Sandro Halank–056.jpg
Angela Merkel during the signing of the coalition agreement for the 19th election period of the Bundestag, March 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Germany is keen on a good Transatlantic relationship with the US; the issues relating to the US seeking higher defense spending by the EU countries and the more confrontational approach to Russia and China are worrisome. Will Germany develop a more independent approach to the US keeping the Trump experience in mind?

The China Factor

Germany pragmatically engages China. It hoped its value-based approach would succeed if China engaged in trade, investment and technology. With China being docked for its approach to the Uighurs and its stamping down of democracy in Hong Kong, Merkel nevertheless used her EU presidency for a comprehensive agreement on investment (CAI) with China. This is now mired in the EU parliament.

The Green Foreign Ministry of Germany is keen to call out China when it contradicts German and European values. It is keener to fulfill the EU strategy for China, which labeled it a systemic rival. However, German industry, faced with a low growth rate in Germany and Europe, wanted the Chinese market and production bases.

Merkel kept German industry in good humor. The Greens are more aggressive and less experienced in strategic planning. Their platform was criticized by the German Industry Federation (BDI) during the elections. Now the Greens lead the Foreign and Economic Ministries.

China has already been called out by Baerbock and the Chinese Embassy in Berlin has reacted, asking them to abide by the pragmatic approach and engage on all issues.

This remains the biggest strategic challenge to Germany and Scholz realizes this in his address to the Bundestag. German and European values would be important, but a pragmatic approach to China, an important economic partner, would be taken into account, he said.

It appears that the Chancellery in Berlin will call the shots on China while it allows the foreign ministry to continue to take value-laden pot-shots at Beijing. Will the Foreign Ministry and Chancellery be on even keel?  Gerhard Schröder (SPD) in 1998 saw his coalition with the Greens as a relationship of ‘the older one is a cook, the smaller one is a waiter.’

The Greens are keen on climate issues. Scholz believes China needs to be engaged if climate issues are to be successfully pursued. These are inherent contradictions between German value-based objectives and strategic practicalities including a China policy not aligned with the USA

The Russian Question

Regarding Russia, Germany is worried that further action may be necessary if Russia invades Ukraine. The entire EU would be marshaled and the US would lead the charge. For Germany, sanctions on Russia are unwelcome. The new Nord Stream II gas pipeline brings energy at lower and dependable costs to Germany.

These infrastructure and economic assets were created so that Russia would find it worthwhile not to annoy Europe. The strategy backfired. Now Germany finds reasons not to annoy Russia because of their dependence on gas.

Thus, all three power centres, Washington, Beijing or Moscow will challenge German strategic ingenuity. This in turn will depend on the internal balance between the coalition partners.

Another strategic aspect for German reorientation is the Indo-Pacific. In the last year of the Merkel chancellorship, the Indo-Pacific guidelines were created. These are more spoken about than acted upon so far. The coalition document mentions them. Through the IP guidelines, Germany intends to enhance its engagement with India, the ASEAN, Japan, Korea and Australia. This is more economic and trade-oriented to obtain larger markets.

The IP guidelines lack the strategic intent to challenge China which most other IP policies do. They are a China-plus-one policy without an economic or FDI reallocation. Even with the truncated approach, the IP guidelines of Germany and the EU could be the basis for more intensive engagement for Germany, with India and ASEAN in the main, even though this may not be strategic in nature.

Merkel and Biden (Wikimedia Commons)

The Road To Growth

The EU’s “Global Gateway” project will raise $300 billion by 2027 and offer an alternative to BRI for the development of countries. Germany would look at this as well as the India-EU connectivity Partnership.

The EU has a similar partnership with Japan. This could bring an expansion of green infrastructure into India. Already Germany, France and the EU are involved in several Metro projects. This partnership could develop high-speed railways as a strategic initiative.

Multilateralism and the Alliance for Democracies will remain part of German strategy. Strengthening UN institutions is a priority, though there is no mention of the G4 or Security Council reform in the coalition agreement.

The coalition commits itself to non-proliferation and disarmament. Germany has taken responsibility in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. American action under Trump derailed the process. How much leadership will Germany and the EU show on this issue? If it can bridge the gap between Tehran and Washington, it will mark the emergence of a strategic middle ground.

These issues will test the strategic reorientation of Germany. They will challenge its ability to manage the EU and through it the wider world. Managing the neighborhood will remain a German responsibility.

(The author is the former Ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN and the African Union. He is the Chair, CII Task Force on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa, and a Professor, IIT Indore.)