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 He committed Germany to NATO’s nuclear sharing, pledging to upgrade its outdated Tornado jets, and reversed the government’s opposition to providing weapons to Ukraine.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.