Garvan Walshe: Germany’s new government may be tougher on Russia and China. Which would suit our own. But there’s a snag.

30 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Foreign policy rarely features much at election time, and Germany’s election last Sunday was no exception. It scarcely appeared during the three Chancellor candidates’ debates, conducted against a background of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Franco-American spat over AUKUS. The result, however, sets the stage for an change in German foreign policy to which the UK will need to adapt.

The centre-left SPD came out narrowly on top with 26 per cent of the vote and 207 seats in the Bundestag. Their Olaf Scholz is likely to move to the chancellery once coalition negotiations conclude.

Angela Merkel’s successor-to-be, Armin Laschet, suffered a true shocker. He gave his CDU/CSU Uniuon their worst ever result ever (24 per cent of the vote and 196 bundestag seats).

Next came the Greens, up a third to 15 per cent and 118 seats, and the liberal FDP (92 seats and 12 per cent).

The far right AfD and far left Die Linke got 10 per cent and five per cent respectively, as their core electorate of elderly former GDR residents dwindles. Fans of the Schlewsig-Holstein question will be delighted to observe the seat won by Stefan Seidler of the Danish minority SSW.

The big electoral shift is not so much the revival of the SPD, up a fifth on their 2017 result, or unmet expectations of the Greens, who did not do as well as their early summer polling suggested, but the decline of the CDU/CSU. This was partly down to an uninspiring and gaffe- prone candidate, but also because of its difficulties in keeping its vote together at a time of electoral fragmentation.

An important strand of the CDU has come to think that a hard-boiled national conservative politics could consolidate the right-wing vote by winning back supporters lost to the AfD. Friedrich Merz, who narrowly failed to become CDU leader after Merkel’s successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was forced out, epitomised that thinking. This week’s results put its futility beyond doubt. The CDU picked up 80,000 votes from the AfD this time around, but lost almost three million to the SPD, Greens and FDP. If even ultra-moderate Laschet was too right-wing for that many CDU voters, it is hard to see how an AfD-lite offering could not have done even worse.

This election has moved German politics in a liberal, pro-European, pro-green direction. Norbert Röttgen is the CDU man best placed to take advantage. Yet after its battering, the CDU/CSU is now divided about whether even to take part in coalition negotiations. Though Laschet claimed a mandate to enter talks with the Greens and the FDP, many in his party, including the influential Bavarian sister party leader, Markus Söder, are wary. After sixteen years in power, an exhausted Union could do with some time in opposition to refresh itself.

Though a CDU-led government remains an outside possibility, the most likely coalition will be the so-called “traffic light” made up of the SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and the Greens. In a savvy move, the smaller Greens and FDP have decided to forge a joint neogtiating platform (together they acccount for 210 seats, four more than the SPD) that they will then put to the bigger parties’ leaderships.

And although Greens and FDP differ on economics, their positions on foreign affairs are much closer than might be expected. With the Green co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, tipped for the foreign ministry, German foreign policy is not set for radical revolution (this is Germany after all), but it can expect to receive a sizeable shove.

Both parties want to see more foreign policy made at the EU level, and by qualified majorities (rather than unanimity as it is now). The FDP are explicitly in favour of a European army. And while the Greens have a pacifist inheritance that makes them skittish about anything involving nuclear weapons, they have come around to multilateral military deployments abroad. Watch for an effort to change the EU’s treaties to bring all this about. If the new coalition is with the SDP, policy towards Hungary and Poland will also toughen.

Beyond Europe, both these parties are also tougher on Russia and China than both the SPD (whose former leader works for a Russian state oil firm) and the CDU, more focused on human rights, and less on industrial exports. Though they are unlikely to be strong enough to stop the Nordstream 2 pipeline in Germany, expect them to push to have it subjected to tougher EU-level regulation.

Overall, this is an agenda with which the UK can work well — provided it realises that the new government will be even more disposed to conduct its foreign policy through the EU. Bilateral relations will remain polite, of course, but London will find it much easier to pursue its interests if it comes to terms with the growing EU foreign and defence establishment in Brussels and engages with it.

Leon Mangasarian: Merkeldämmerung. It is past time that the German Chancellor stepped down.

14 May

Dr Leon Mangasarian was an editor and reporter for Bloomberg News, Deutsche-Presse Agentur and United Press International in East Berlin, Bonn, Berlin and Brussels. He received a PhD from the London School of Economics in 1993. He is co-author (with Jan Techau) of a book on German security policy, Führungsmacht Deutschland, and is now a freelance writer living in Potsdam, Germany, and on a farm in southeast Brandenburg state.

All political lives end in failure unless cut off midstream. Angela Merkel proves Enoch Powell’s theorem as her chancellorship staggers to its end after 16 years amid a botched Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

If Merkel had learned one lesson from her mentor, Helmut Kohl, it would have been to get out while the getting was good. He was also tossed out of office after 16 years.

Merkel is departing with no signature achievement. True, she’s dealt with major crises, but her policy responses have at best been fair to middling. Far too often they’ve been flawed, or she simply avoids tough issues.

Germany is failing to get  jabs into people’s arms. Just nine percent of Germans are fully vaccinated, compared with 56 percent in Israel, 35 percent in the US and 27 percent in the UK. Merkel insisted on handing vaccine procurement to the EU and thus to Ursula von der Leyen, a competency-challenged ex-German defense minister co-responsible for wrecking Germany’s Bundeswehr.

Insufficient vaccines is worsened by Germany’s obsession with making sure nobody jumps the queue. Instead of using the nation’s excellent network of general practitioners, the wheel was reinvented by setting up huge vaccination centers. Rationing vaccine by age groups means binning thousands of doses at the end of the day.

This debacle again shows Merkel as the tactician and not a grand strategist. She’s reactive, rather than calculating means to big-picture ends. So notorious is she for dithering that her name has become a new German verb: to “Merkeln” means either to do nothing and avoid making a decision or, when you do, to hide it in gauze and fog.

Merkel’s bad ideas aren’t limited to public health. Here are some of her greatest hits.

Drifting left

Merkel’s fundamental misstep was shoving her once centrist-conservative Christian Democratic Union to the left. The CDU became social democratic, making its conservatives homeless, prompting some to join the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Her 2015 open border migration policy led to the AfD’s resurrection. The Christian Democratic bloc is cratering, with polls putting it at 23 percent, behind the opposition Greens. Under Kohl the Christian Democrats regularly won over 40 percent. In a further act of self-harm, the CDU chose the Merkelist premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet, as its chancellor candidate for September’s election.

Merkel is a high-tax leader. Among her first acts was raising value-added tax to 19 percent from 16 percent, and income and other tax burdens have shot up under her chancellorship. German tax revenue was 452 billion euros in her first year in office. In 2019 it was 800 billion euros. Germany now has one of the highest overall tax rates in the OECD club of rich nations.

Overregulation

Meanwhile, the Chancellor failed to revamp Germany’s economy. The last major reform was almost 20 years ago under Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat. It was political suicide on his part, but laid the foundation for prosperity.

Today, German business staggers under suffocating bureaucracy. There’s a stunning example near Berlin, where Tesla is building a “Gigafactory” that will create an estimated 40,000 jobs. Construction is almost finished, but German bureaucrats still refuse to issue a building permit. Elon Musk has been warned he’s investing at his own risk and that if the permit is denied he’ll have to tear down the factory. Merkel thinks more bureaucrats as the answer: since 2016 there’s been a 22 percent increase in the number of employees in her chancellery and ministries.*

Importing power

Germany now has Europe’s highest electricity costs. Households and most businesses pay 43 percent above the EU average. Merkel’s botched renewables shift slams consumers with huge bills subsidising wind and solar. Merkel’s other energy move was to panic after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and move forward the closure of all nuclear plants to 2022. At the same time, she’s speeding up closures of coal-fired power plants.

The result? Germany’s Bundesrechnungshof, which audits government management, warns that Merkelian energy policies risk triggering electricity blackouts. After closing nuclear and coal-fired plants, Germany, on winter days with no sun or wind, will import electricity from France and Poland that’s produced by – you guessed it – nuclear or coal-fired plants.

Russia

Merkel’s other energy/geopolitical debacle is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, running under the Baltic Sea, to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. The pipeline has pissed off Germany’s NATO and EU allies. (Everyone but Merkel knows the Kremlin uses energy as a political weapon.)

The Poles and the Baltics are furious; Ukraine, the current route of Russian pipelines to Europe, is fearful; and both the Trump and now the Biden administrations pledged sanctions on companies building the pipeline.

Merkel insists Nord Stream 2 is just another business deal.

China

China is Merkel’s favorite among global dictatorships. It’s only a slight exaggeration to describe her chancellorship one long kowtow. She regularly visits China to support German exports and investment. Merkel crowned Germany’s EU presidency by ramming through an EU-China investment accord, despite pleas from the incoming Biden administration to wait.

Merkel is wobbly on minority rights, Beijing’s military operations in the South China Sea, the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, and threats to Taiwan.

A key part of Germany’s body politic is memory of the Holocaust and Nazi crimes. There are two parts: never forget history, no matter how awful; and “never again,” as in never tolerate even a hint of genocide. Joschka Fischer, then Foreign Minister, evoked this in backing the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo by saying “never again Auschwitz, never again genocide.”

More than anyone in Germany, the Chancellor must personify these tenets. Yet Merkel has stumbled. “Never again” is brushed off over China’s persecution of the Uighurs. Merkel refuses to follow NATO allies the US, Canada, and the Netherlands, which accuse Beijing of genocide.

Turkey

As for history, Merkel made clear her displeasure over a 2016 German parliament resolution describing the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (Germany’s World War I ally) as genocide. Merkel skipped the vote and then, to make sure that Ankara got the message, her spokesman declared the resolution wasn’t legally binding.

Overlooking a century-old genocide is easier than angering the Turkish government she needed to block migrants from Europe. Merkel and the EU paid Turkey billions so Ankara would do the dirty work of closing EU borders.

Digital

Merkel’s failings are striking in her endless harping about “digitalization.” For all Merkel’s talk, inaction is the result. Forget Estonian-style e-Government. Germans rely on fax machines, signatures and humorless officials wielding stamps and well-inked stamp pads. Anyway, e-Government couldn’t work in Germany because it requires a decent mobile phone system. Merkel has failed to plug the massive holes Germany’s network. I’ve had better mobile service in the remotest parts of Scotland or Namibia.

Politicians everywhere reach their “sell-by” date after eight to ten years. Merkel, despite human decency and incorruptibility, has long since reached hers. Every day she remains in office is a lost day for Germany. This year is wasted for lawmaking with elections in September, followed by coalition negotiations that could run into 2022.

Germany desperately needs a member of parliament, like Leopold Amery in the House of Commons in 1940, to stand up and speak the truth:

“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing … In the name of God, go!” 

*Simon Haas, Jonas Hermann and Charlotte Eckstein, “Wuchernder Staat: Deutschlands Regierungsapparat wird grösser und grösser,“ Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10 April 2021.