Stephen Booth: Does Germany’s pledge to rearm signal fundamental change – or is it a temporary reflex?

10 Mar

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

The horror of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been shocking in so many ways. Much about what happens next is uncertain, but the crisis is clearly a pivotal moment, which the West and its allies will be grappling with for many years to come. Vladimir Putin’s appalling actions have upended long-held assumptions about the geopolitics of Europe and are leading to radical and fundamental changes in policy, most starkly in Germany.

Germany has long been the EU’s economic powerhouse but, due in large part to its history, has eschewed a leadership role in European foreign and security policy, which have traditionally been roles for France and Britain. However, faced with the new reality, the new coalition government, headed by the centre-left SDP and supported by the Greens and the liberal FDP, is now embarking on a new course.

For weeks prior to the invasion, Berlin had maintained a longstanding policy of not delivering weapons to active conflict zones. Meanwhile, Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor, had refused to say publicly if the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be scrapped if Russia moved into Ukraine. This position was increasingly unsustainable, and the pipeline was eventually suspended in response to Putin moving his forces into Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

A week later, Scholz’s speech to a special session of the Bundestag was the most striking illustration of how the crisis is altering the strategic outlook. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Foreign Minister, described it as a “180-degree turn” in the country’s foreign policy.

Scholz announced that Germany will now “year after year” meet the NATO target of investing more than two per cent of GDP in defence (up from around 1.5 per cent now) and will create a one-off €100 billion fund to modernise its under-resourced military. He committed Germany to NATO’s nuclear sharing, pledging to upgrade its outdated Tornado jets, and reversed the government’s opposition to providing weapons to Ukraine.

On energy, Scholz pledged to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas, proposing new infrastructure to secure supply from other sources and providing economic support for consumers affected by the transition. There is however no plan to reverse the phase out of nuclear energy announced by Angela Merkel in 2011, which has prolonged German reliance on coal and Russian gas.

Nevertheless, the various policy announcements have overturned decades of German foreign policy and some fundamental tenets of the main political parties.

The SPD has been the party of “Ostpolitik” and has long seen engagement and interdependence with Russia as a key plank of German policy. The first gas pipeline between Germany and the then Soviet Union opened in 1973, under the then SPD Chancellor, Willy Brandt. Scholz also called on another former SPD Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to resign from his posts at Russian firms, dismissing the argument that he is now a private citizen, noting that a chancellor’s public service doesn’t end when he leaves office.

The Greens have accepted the pledge to increase capacity for coal and gas reserves and build new liquid natural gas terminals to accelerate the move away from Russian gas. The party’s former leader, Robert Habeck, first raised the prospect of providing Ukraine with defensive weapons in May 2021, but this was controversial with the rest of his party and the increase to defence spending is a major departure from the party’s pacifist roots. The fiscally conservative FDP have accepted the need to take on new debt to modernise the military.

Equally, Friedrich Merz, leader of the largest opposition party, the centre-right Christian Democrats, and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) came out with strong support for rearmament. This is significant, since investment foundered during the 16 years of CDU-led government under Angela Merkel. The breadth of cross-party support demonstrates the level of consensus behind this new direction.

These developments have been welcomed by Germany’s international partners, including the UK, who have long called on Berlin to shoulder a greater share of the security burden and re-evaluate its stance on Russia. Speaking to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee this week, Liz Truss said, “I want to praise Germany for their change in stand, because that will have a huge impact. I want to see others follow their lead.”

Delivering the new suite of German policies is certainly more easily said than done. For example, Scholz has so far resisted any EU embargo on Russian oil, judging this too risky a step, which only underlines the country’s dependence on Russian energy. The US and the UK, which announced embargos this week, are less reliant. The EU has instead announced a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year.

Germany has been repeatedly criticised for free riding on others’ NATO commitments. The question is whether we are witnessing a temporary reflex to the current situation, or whether the political environment has fundamentally changed for the long-term. Just as Germany’s energy dependence on Russia cannot be reversed overnight, decades of drift into quasi-pacifism reflect a deeply embedded outlook. Will this moment mark a shift towards a new forward-leaning posture regarding security and the use of hard power as a deterrent?

But assuming it is a long-term commitment, the planned boost to German spending will make it the biggest defence spender in Europe. However reluctant it is to actively engage in geopolitics, this fact alone will matter by virtue of Germany’s size, history, and geographic position at the heart of the EU. A more assertive Berlin could potentially alter EU and wider European affairs significantly in the years to come.

Emmanuel Macron, who looks likely to be re-elected this spring, has been positioning France to take on the geopolitical leadership of Europe post-Brexit and post-Merkel. However, Scholz may yet become a more influential and decisive Chancellor than Merkel. Recent events will certainly have boosted the relationship between Berlin and Washington.

Macron’s bid for European leadership has centred on a push for EU “strategic autonomy”, but Germany, Eastern Europe, and the UK have been keener to emphasise NATO’s role in European security, which could suggest a stronger role for Atlanticism.

On the other hand, Germany is likely to be reluctant to lead from the front, and German governments have consistently sought to embed foreign policy in an integrated EU framework. The current coalition agreement proposes qualified majority voting for foreign and security policy, with a mechanism to reassure the smaller member states. If this moment marks the birth of a more geopolitical EU, its character and configuration remain up for grabs.

Meanwhile, the UK’s early role in providing military aid to Ukraine and its support for eastern NATO states has been welcomed by several EU members. Broadly, both UK and EU politicians have sought to emphasise how the crisis has demonstrated the need for and value of cooperation on fundamental issues of security and upholding democracy. Truss, along with her counterparts from the US, Canada, and Ukraine, attended the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council last week.

When pressed at the Foreign Affairs Committee, Truss refused to engage in speculation about whether new UK-EU structures in this area might be explored. However, she said, “We do need to re-look at European security architecture. It needs to be tougher, it needs to be stronger, there needs to be much stronger support on the Eastern flank.” The key part of the conversation is between the EU and NATO, she added.

For now the most pressing issue is the appalling unfolding humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, which is only likely to get worse as the violence grinds on. Meanwhile, the war’s wider economic impact will soon be felt by households across Europe in the form of higher energy prices and living costs, which will compound already high levels of inflation. Neighbouring countries will need assistance in coping with the humanitarian fall-out as increasing numbers of refugees flee the country.

However, the crisis is also likely to have profound implications for our European neighbourhood, which require careful consideration.

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.

Garvan Walshe: Merkeldammerung. Germany’s polls put the Greens within striking distance of government.

1 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

No leader gives up the job entirely on their own terms, but Angela Merkel, who will step down as Chancellor after what will be at least fifteen years in power, came closer than most.

She had the skill to keep the coalition of voters behind her Christian Democratic Union (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) sufficiently broad to dominate German politics for a decade and a half. She’ll leave office as one of the great centre-right Chancellors of modern Germany, along with Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

Known for waiting for what seems to everyone too long before making darting radical jumps, Merkel overcame the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and even dealt effectively with the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

She saw off rivals internal (Wolfgang Schäuble) external (the AfD) and a man best described as standing just inside the tent, peeing in (Friedrich Merz).

Yet she was unable to find a successor. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg imploded in a plagiarism scandal, Ursula von der Leyen’s mediocre efforts at the defence ministry would be repeated at the European Commission, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer proved the dampest of squibs, while Armin Laschet was left holding the Coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination programme foundered.

Like every other centre-right party in proportional electoral systems, the CDU/CSU is struggling in a fragmenting political landscape. Party activists worry that she’s losing votes to her right, to the AfD (or, in a more liberal direction, the FDP), while larger numbers of voters defect to the Greens, who have governed impressively in Baden Württemburg (in coalition with the CDU), and who also increased their seats at the CDU’s expense in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The “Union” has a backup plan in the form of Markus Soder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, who could replace Laschet as the centre-right’s Chancellor candidate in September’s elections, but he is now also suffering from the terrible vaccination campaign and PPE procurement corruption scandals. The Union is now polling in the mid twenties, ten points down on the beginning of the year. This doesn’t look like an election where “more of the same” is a winning formula.

The latest opinion polls have narrowed the gap between the CDU/CSU and the Greens to less than five points, and if the trend continues the Greens could even top the poll in September.

This opens up two new possibilites for post-election Germany. Until this month, it had seemed likely that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, headed by a Union Chancellor, would have been the only way to avoid letting either the AfD or the post-communist Linke into national government.

But the green surge increases the options. A “traffic light” coalition, between the Greens, SPD (the social democrats, whose colour is red) and the liberal FDP (yellow), or a Jamaica coalition (after the Jamaican flag, because the CDU’s colour is black) involving Greens, Union and FDP would also add up to a majority. In these scenarios it is the Greens, not either of Germany’s two traditional parties, who could choose who to form a government with.

Germany’s Greens started as a conventional green party emphasising environmental politics, but have evolved into a centre-left formation without the industrial baggage of the SPD, which allows them to take clearer stances against polluting industry or in favour of immigration and accommodating refugees.

If their representation in the Berlin city government is radical (favouring rent control, for example) their adminsitration in prosperous Baden Würtemberg, home to much of Germany’s car industry, has been decidedly more pragmatic. Their independence from German industrial politics has also led them to take stronger stances against Putin’s Russia (remember that Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former Chancellor, serves as chairman of Rosneft), and Orban’s Hungary.

A green-led government would, perhaps astonishingly, tilt German geopolitics closer to that of the United States. Transatlantic friction over Russia’s Nordstream pipeline to Germany, which both the Greens and Washington are against, would disappear. Leading the govenrment would, however, pose problems for the party in relation to nuclear weapons, with which much of its membership is deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the German Greens, which hse co-leaders, Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock, would pursue international policy in step with the UK’s focus on addressing climate change, and upholding international human rights norms against Moscow and Beijing.  Nonetheless, they are strongly pro-European, and a Green-led German government would put renewed energy behind deeper European integration.

In September, the test for the Greens will be whether they can provide the right combination of reasssurance and change for an electorate that prized the stability and integrity Merkel provided them, but is now ready to give the system a bit of a jolt.

Daniel Hamilton: So we have a new CDU Chairman. Will a CDU-Green coalition follow after Germany’s federal election?

18 Jan

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

In September, Angela Merkel will step down as German Chancellor after sixteen years in office. Regardless of how one may judge her record, Merkel’s influence over the substance of European governance has been immense; from stamping her mark on EU fiscal rules to her open-doors policy during the migrant crisis to her final ascent for the UK’s post-Brexit deal.

The cast of names that have come and gone during her term in office – Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May, Jacques Chirac, Francois Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, George W.Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump– is without modern compare.

Partly because of constitutional constraints and partly due to post-war caution and conservatism, stability is a feature of German politics.  Since 1982, Germany has had only three Chancellors.  In the same period, the UK has had seven Prime Ministers.  Italy has had twenty-two.

The Große Koalition between the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) has now largely served in office since 2005.  This has effectively resulted in the two main parties adopting a similar, centrist persona, with disagreements tending to focus on tweaks and cadences of policies rather than fundamentals.

This has arguably hurt the SPD most, whose traditional platform, once grounded in patriotic labour unions and cosy accommodations with big businesses, has fractured as Germany has become more ethnically diverse, more start-up friendly and more ecologist in its views.  The party won 41 per cent of the vote in 1998, yet polls around 15 per cent today.

The CDU has its own problems.  Distinct from what “voting Merkel” meant – centrism, no surprises and the social market, with a strong nod to environmentalism – the CDU’s platform has a rather hollow feel.  It is accepted, for sure, that the party stands for the defence of Germany’s social market economy and a punchy approach to German influence at an EU level, yet its pro-immigration stances and seeming intransigence on tax cuts and deregulation have separately irked working class voters and entrepreneurs.

With the CDU and SPD unable to define their appeal effectively, an opportunity exists for other parties to gain ground.

While the hard-left Die Linke and market-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) are polling well enough to have a respectable presence in the next convocation of the Budestag, it would be wise to follow the public remarks of Die Grünen, Germany’s Green Party.

Overseas perceptions of the Greens are somewhat outdated and tend to revolve around images of the “68ers” – a radical student movement founded on ending the military draft, opposition to the Vietnam war and the modernisation of a stodgy political system still inhabited by the wartime generation.

Their march to the mainstream has, though, been a long one.

The decision in 1998 of Joschka Fischer, a veteran 68er and the country’s Foreign Minister during the Green coalition with the SPD, to advocate NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis upended the party’s pacifism-at-all-costs agenda, and led Germany into an overseas conflict for the first time since World War Two.  A Green Minister-President, Winfried Kretschmann, has governed the manufacturing-dominated state of Baden-Württemberg in coalition with the CDU for more than a decade; implementing a pro-business, R&D-friendly agenda that feels more modern than the SPD’s staider rhetoric.

The issue of immigration is as polarising or more so an issue in Germany as in other European countries, yet polling suggests that recent-naturalised Germans and the descendents of the Gastarbeiter generation which moved to the country from Turkey and Yugoslavia in the 60s and 70s lean strongly towards the Greens.  This offers the party another electoral advantage over the SPD.

There is much to dislike – or even, given the party’s more extreme factions, fear – in the Green Party’s platform, but the fact remains that the party appears to be on the verge of stitching together arguably the most electorally-appealing platform in German politics today.

With the CDU on course to win roughly a third of the vote when September’s elections come, the Greens on upward or around 20 per cent of the vote and all other blocks trailing far behind, the prospect of a CDU-Green, Schwarz-Grüne coalition is a distinct possibility.

The election of Armin Laschet as the new Chairman of the CDU on Saturday morning would, on the face of it, appear to represent a “safe” choice for the party.  Coverage of his victory has focussed on his jolly nature, centrist political brand and stewardship of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of Germany’s most important manufacturing hubs.

A debate will take place in Germany during the coming months as to whether Laschet will be the party candidate for Chancellor (he faces a potential contest including the guttural Bavarian Governor, Markus Söder, and the liberal Health Minister, Jens Spahn), yet this is a battle he is likely to win.  The fact he was able to see off the socially-conservative, immigration-sceptic Friedrich Merz and media-friendly Norbert Röttgen to win the top job suggests the party is looking for stability, not revolution.

There is little debate about whether the CDU and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, will win the plurality of votes in September.  With Laschet as their candidate, a Große Koalition with either the rump remainder of the SPD or resurgent Greens would appear to be both mathematically and politically possible.

CDU/CSU voters have proven to be a loyal block, yet their combined 45 per cent vote share in 2013 is a distant memory.  They now poll 35 per cent.  The price of such a fall in support is that no clear path exists for Laschet to pursue a coalition with the CDU’s traditional partners, the liberal FDP.  His only options are on the left.

Given the recent momentum of the Greens, it is not beyond the realms of possibility they could further erode support from the SPD and Die Linke, leading to an electoral percentage showing in the high twenties.  In this scenario, the pressure from both Green insiders and those on the left, battered by sixteen years of losses, for a leftist GroKo may be insatiable.  The price of such a coalition, particularly for Die Linke, would likely be the shelving of Green moderation in favour of a distinctively leftist agenda.

The implications of such a centre-left coalition would be profound – for both the UK and EU.

Notwithstanding recent Coronavirus-related speeding, a coalition of this kind would see the abandonment of the ‘Schwarze Null’ fiscal policy that mandates a balanced budget domestically and higher taxes on personal incomes and business.

For a post-Brexit UK, seeking to steer a path as a low-tax, regulation-light economy, a malcontent leftist coalition in Germany would likely serve as a Trojan Horse in the European Council for policies designed to disadvantage and undermine UK interests.

For all the criticisms of Laschet’s unambitious centrism and the gap that exists between British conservatism and the CDU’s social market economy orthodoxies, the preferred outcome for the UK is clear.