With a new governing coalition, Germany looks to dare more progress in Europe
The new German government titled its coalition agreement “Dare More Progress” (“Mehr Fortschritt wagen“). The title is a slight dig at the conservative bent of Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign and its relatively slow, cautious approach that frustrated some who wanted to move faster. The foreign policy ambitions of the so-called “traffic light coalition” (named for the colors of the three parties) reflect its promise of a progressive agenda. The goals spelled out in the coalition agreement include commitments to integrate climate change considerations in various foreign policy fields, increase efforts on human rights and arms control, and adopt a feminist foreign policy. Other commitments signal that some core longstanding principles of Berlin’s foreign policy will remain in place: support for the European Union and its foreign policy, to multilateralism and a rules-based international order, and to transatlantic relations and NATO as an indispensable part of Germany’s security.
Olaf Scholz, the new chancellor succeeding Merkel, leads a coalition of his left-of-center Social Democratic Party (SPD for its German initials), the more left-leaning Green Party, and the pro-business Free Democrats. The grouping isn’t the most natural fit, considering their differences in some policy areas, and it remains to be seen how this will affect the new government’s foreign policy. But Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s first female foreign minister and co-leader of the Greens, has been an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and favors a tougher stance towards China. She says she aims to pursue a “values-based foreign policy” that combines “dialogue and rigor,” though there is still debate about exactly how that will play out.
In any case, the stated approach raises expectations that Berlin will more forcefully address democratic backsliding and speak out against authoritarian regimes and illiberal governments. While the new government’s policy toward China will bear watching (it describes China as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival on different fronts), the way it handles its own backyard will be telling. Relations with Russia, Belarus, Turkey, Poland, and Hungary (the latter two being EU members) are likely to remain contentious on some fronts. But sticking to principles and values on the one hand and seeking constructive dialogue on the other are not mutually exclusive.
The coalition agreement describes the current state of foreign policy challenges in the EU’s neighborhood as well as its dilemmas. It takes stock of the authoritarian and illiberal developments in and around Europe, and the overall tone towards Russia, Turkey, and other increasingly autocratic countries is harsher in comparison to the coalition agreements of previous governments.
Speaking Out on Repression
While the new coalition intends to seek stable relations, a constructive dialogue, and cooperation with Russia in specific fields such as climate or environmental policies, it clearly criticizes restrictions of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties and obstacles for civil society in Russia. This suggests Berlin will more often speak out against repressive measures targeting civil society in Russia. A first action may include a forceful response to the Kremlin’s unprecedented targeting of Memorial, one of the oldest and most prominent human rights group in Russia. Several German politicians, both from the old and new government, have expressed their concerns recently over the Russian persecutor’s request to shut down the organization. With regard to support for civil society, the coalition agreement is not mere rhetoric; it makes specific reference to practical measures to support civil society actors abroad, including journalists, activists, and human rights defenders. For example, the governing partners aim to simplify the admission of people at high risk of persecution and to ensure that applicants are safe during the process, wherever they are. That may include expanding protection programs for human rights defenders, such as the Elisabeth Selbert Initiative and creating additional positions with a focus on human rights in Germany’s embassies (though the agreement doesn’t mention any specific country).
The coalition agreement does not explicitly reference the energy pipeline Nord Stream 2, the most controversial element of German-Russian relations – and an irritant in Germany’s ties with the United States and Ukraine, which would be harmed by Nord Stream’s bypassing of its own pipeline from Russia to the EU. The Federal Network Agency, Germany’s energy regulator, is currently reviewing the certification of the last part of the pipeline that connects it to Germany. In the next step, the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, will give its opinion on the issue. The coalition agreement states that energy projects have to be compatible with European energy law. This phrase suggests that the government might accept the opinion of the EU Commission on the issue. But also political realities play a role: In response to Russia’s deployment of troops at Ukraine’s border, Baerbock recently warnedthat Nord Stream 2 could not come into service in the event of further escalation. Michael Roth (SPD), the new chairman of the German Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee, arguedthat Nord Stream 2 is not purely an economic project, but has political aspects as well.
Based on these developments and the tone of the coalition agreement, Berlin’s approach is likely to shift away from a “change through trade” paradigm that has characterized Germany’s Russia policy for a long time. The new government is facing a serious Russian military threat against Ukraine, and the Kremlin will likely continue its adversarial policies – such as gas supply manipulations, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks – towards Kyiv and other Western-oriented governments in the region (such as Moldova) in the coming years.
Berlin and other European governments will therefore be forced to deal with Moscow in order to ensure that conflicts in the common neighborhood do not escalate and that the sovereignty of the EU’s neighboring countries is respected. Given its intentions to strengthen the EU’s foreign policy, Berlin may support the EU more strongly as the key mediator in these conflicts. Relations with Russia well illustrate the challenges that the new government will face in its efforts to implement a policy that combines “dialogue and rigor.”
Relations With Turkey
Berlin will face similar challenges in its relations with Turkey. The German coalition will likely be vocal in criticizing the curbing of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A large part of Turkish society is increasingly critical of the dismantling of democratic standards, rule of law, minority rights and women’s rights in the past years. The new government is likely to support these actors — for example by expanding civil society and youth exchange programs. It will also continue pressure on Ankara to release the philanthropist Osman Kavala, whose detention recently led the Council of Europe to start infringement proceedings against Turkey.
The Kavala case, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Turkey continues to detain a high number of journalists, opposition politicians, and activists. Even if the Kavala case is settled, Germany, in close coordination with the EU and other member states, will continue to call on Ankara to release all political prisoners, even if this might lead to threats from the Turkish government to suspend the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey over migration. Here again, Berlin is likely to pursue a combination of calling on the respect for human rights and maintaining dialogue with the Erdoğan government, which faces possible elections later next year.
Turkey has undoubtedly paid close attention to the EU’s response to the situation of migrants at Belarus’s border with Poland and Lithuania, where Alexander Lukashenko sought to blackmail the EU for its sanctions against Minsk. The coalition partners will aim to prevent the manipulation of refugees for geopolitical purposes and blackmailing. Regardless of how the border situation evolves, Berlin is likely to support democratic forces in Belarus and put pressure on the Lukashenko regime to release all political prisoners. At the same time, it will continue the previous government’s calls for Poland to ensure humane conditions for the refugees and migrants at the border with Belarus.
A Tougher Stance on Hungary and Poland?
Overall, the coalition agreement emphasizes a partnership with Germany’s neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe. Both the foreign minister and the chancellor have already paid visits to Warsaw during their first days in office. The governing parties intend to take the security interests of the countries in the region seriously, especially in their relationship with Russia, and are committed to maintaining a credible deterrent potential. Such solidarity might become important in case of serious tensions between Poland and Russia.
On the other hand, leading members of the new governing parties in Germany have repeatedly criticized the Merkel government for its lax approach to the threats to rule of law by the increasingly autocratic leaders of Hungary and Poland. Not surprisingly therefore, the coalition agreement indirectly indicates a tougher stance on compliance with EU rule of law standards. The new German government intends to support the EU in its efforts to protect its values and its rule of law internally and externally, and will urge the EU Commission to use its legal instruments more consistently and promptly on these issues. Berlin will likely provide more forceful support to EU institutions than in the past in their discussions with EU members that do not comply with the union’s rule of law standards. The traffic light coalition also aims to support the EU Commission’s position that the release of billions of euros of EU recovery funding should be dependent on an independent judiciary in the recipient country, a measure specifically aimed at Poland and Hungary’s seizures of control over judicial institutions. The negotiations between the EU Commission and the Polish government are ongoing.
At the same time, a dialogue between Berlin and Warsaw on joint interests within the EU might be a feasible way to avoid tensions. The Polish government is likely interested in policies to counter cyber threats and other malign activities by actors outside the EU. For example, Berlin and Warsaw could jointly promote effective counter-measures at the EU level. Such cooperation could create a more effective toolbox to strengthen the EU’s capacity to defend its democratic values within and abroad.
This article was first published at Just Security on December 22nd, 2021.