The European Challenge for Germany’s New Political Leadership after Merkel


“A spectre is haunting Europe”: which German leadership will rule the country after Angela Merkel’s departure in September 2021? After 16 years in power, the Chancellor is seen today as the guarantor of continuity of Berlin’s pro-European stance. Somebody saw her even as the most prominent European leader of the first twenty years of this century.

Let us consider, first, her undoubted European merits. As from her first chancellorship in 2005, Merkel was immediately confronted with the need to revamp the European political dynamics: shortly before her appointment, the negative results of the referenda in France and the Netherlands had led, in fact, to the rejection of the European Constitution and crashed the federalist ambitions to establish a political union at the eve of the new century, after Joschka Fischer’s speech at the Humboldt University in 2000. To recover a European agenda, the young Chancellor helped achieving a new – albeit minimal – consensus on shared institutional reforms in the EU and initiated during her first EU Presidency the negotiations for the later Lisbon Treaty. Immediately afterwards, she was confronted with the implications of the financial crisis and the sovereign crisis, until today the most serious threat to European Union’s survival. Several of her leading political allies in Germany wanted to expel Greece from the euro area, with a view to caution against any future manipulation of public accounts and break of fiscal rules by other euro area members. Instead, the chancellor kept the euro area united and established the tools to permit the Bundestag to support financially the weaker countries via newly created European facilities, today merged in the European Stability Mechanism. After the Fukushima incident in 2011, moreover, she opened the way to energy reforms and climate change policies in Europe by announcing the exit of Germany from nuclear energy, also a move which required courage and determination.

When dozens of thousands of migrants started their Odyssey from Middle East to Europe in 2015, Angela Merkel let 1 million refugees settle in the country, in full contradiction to Germany’s traditional conservative policy on immigration. At the same time, she continued to back the European Central Bank’s innovative monetary policy against the criticism of an important part of the ruling class and sections of her own voters, including after the recent case in front of the Constitutional Case. Her coherence in sticking to EU policies also in emergency conditions possibly cost her a high political price, with the emergence of a far right and anti-system political party (the AfD) which targeted Merkel in the public discussion as a betrayer of German interests.

During her second EU Presidency, she had a fundamental role in designing the EU agreement on the multiannual budget, which has for the first time ever permitted the European Union to issue a common debt and to finance the Next Generation EU programme through the levy of new EU taxes. Also, in these days she is staunchly defending the common EU strategy to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, despite inevitable popular dissatisfaction with the speed of the vaccination in a situation of high uncertainty.

But Angela Merkel’s sixteen years were not deprived of ambiguities, including the muted response to President Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, which had raised hopes for a new impulse to establish a European political union. The recent polemical exchange of arguments between the French President and the CDU’s previous President Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on the merits of Europe’s strategic autonomy from NATO has revealed the lack of alignment between Berlin and Paris. While being a steady supporter of multilateralism, the Chancellor did also not depart from Germany’s traditional policy, which favours including a German permanent seat in a reformed UN Security Council, instead of a European one. On migration, while opening to an important inflow of refugees, she did not necessarily support a comprehensive and more European overhaul of the Dublin Treaty. Question marks on Germany’s European stance were raised also by some of the chancellor’s choices on energy provisioning from Russia, and prominently by the construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline.

Strengths and weaknesses of Merkel’s European path demonstrate how determinant the German stance will continue to be in the years ahead. German strategic priorities after Merkel might depend upon the success of two politicians: Armin Laschet and Annalena Baerbock, the former being the newly elected chair of the Christian Democrats since a few weeks only and the second the co-chair of the Greens since 2018. Depending upon the electoral results of next federal elections, they might be the Chancellor and the Foreign Ministry of a new coalition. Under their leadership, the CDU and the Greens produced two strategic texts on Europe’s foreign policy.

What is in general common to the position of the CDU and the Greens (as well as of other parties in Germany) is the belief that Europe should progress towards the establishment of three unions in the fields of health (also in view of Covid-19), security (control of frontiers and fight against terrorism and organised criminality) and defence. What is specific to the two new documents of the CDU and the Greens is the intuition that Europe should develop those three unions by functionally building-up the transatlantic link as a tool for multilateralization of policies. Advancing in parallel in European and transatlantic integration should serve the purpose of reinforcing Biden in the US, contrasting the risk of a return of Trumpism and thereby defending democracy globally. To paraphrase a European federalist motto: CDU and the Greens, albeit in different form, explain that they want to unite Europe to defend democracy not only in Europe but also in the US and worldwide.

The CDU position paper – approved on 26 January by the Parliamentary Group in the Bundestag – is called “Re-establishing a Strong Transatlantic Bond – For a Forward-looking and Comprehensive Partnership”.  The text by the Greens – which Annalena Baerbock co-signed with Robert Habeck in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 23 January – is entitled “Looking Forward: Europe’s Offer for a Transatlantic Agenda” and should be read together with Baerbock’s speech at the Heinrich Böll Foundation on 28 January.

According to the CDU, the Unites States cannot be anymore the exclusive guarantor of world security. Moreover, the US are slowly but steadily distancing themselves from Europe, because of internal demographic and global geopolitical reasons. It is therefore of essence, from a European point of view, that on the one hand the security of the two shores of the Atlantic remains inseparable, and that on the other one Europe takes a greater responsibility to stabilise Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Africa, Middle East and the Artic.  This should happen both in military as well as political terms: the NATO should remain the backbone of a military and political alliance, the US keeps its military presence in Europe intact and Europe, on its side, even exceeds the 2% target for military expenditure at national level. Progress towards European defence should go hand in hand with cooperation with the US, ensuring mutual compatibility of conventional weaponry and modernisation of nuclear carriers.

The new Euro-Atlantic partnership should strengthen multilateral institutions, like the UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It is within these multilateral bodies that Europe and the US should forge an alliance of democracies and check the compliance of international law by authoritarian and anti-democratic states. As a contribution to the establishment of such standards also in the area of digitalisation, the EU legislation (GDPR, DSA and DMA) should become the benchmarks for legislation in the US and other democracies, and tendentially a new global standard. Cooperation with China and Russia should be possible, whenever it is of mutual interest, but always subject to the respect of clear conditions in terms of respect of international law.

Annalena Baerbock, in her 28 January speech, identified the current juncture as similar to the 1989 democratic revolution, thanks to a new triangle of opportunities: first, the reinforced commitment of UN Secretary-General António Guterres to ‘Build-back-better’ policies; second, Biden’s move to cancel in a few weeks only the Trump era via a set of presidential decrees and his resolve to launch a USD 1,9 tn recovery programme in Congress; and third, the EU Green Deal and the EUR 750 bn Next Generation EU. This creates a global opportunity for further action in the direction of fostering international democracy, on which Baerbock further elaborated in the FAZ text of 23 January.

Europe should develop its own sovereignty not as a divarication process from the rest of the world, but as a superpower of cooperation. The core of the new partnership should be to establish a single price for CO2 in Europe and the United States, as a joint reference to run global climate change policies. Euro-American deliverables should include common infrastructures for the transition of industry to hydrogen, shared technologies for the establishment of batteries and battery recycling, as well as a compatible recharging infrastructure for electric mobility. The European legislation should also become the joint framework for European and American interaction on digitalisation, also allowing a common taxation policy and check of existing oligopolistic structures. All these policies, created in the framework of multilateral institutions because of the European and American joint initiative, should be progressively broadened to all democracies and tendentially to the world.

As to security, the Greens recognise the need for Europe to take more responsibility in stabilising relations with Russia, Turkey and China, and propose a new Eastern Security Compact. On the other hand, they see the need for a rebalancing from military expenditure (all Europeans spend together four times more than Russia) to security against hybrid threats (cyber risks, economic dependencies), to the point that in Baerbock’s view Europe should stop hosting nuclear weapons.

In sum, an intense discussion (including many other contributions) is animating the German public opinion on the country’s combined future within European and international multilateral institutions. This is not only a medium-term strategic debate.

Four questions will need to be responded as a matter of priority, at least in part, even before the new elections. What offer should Europe make to the Biden administration, to institutionalise the new transatlantic alignment and help contrasting a return of anti-democratic forces on both sides of the Atlantic? What offer should Germany make to France to help Europe progress towards more strategic autonomy, although within multilateral structures forged on a renewed strong bond with the United States and without developing a European nationalism? How to react to an increasing number of anti-European statements and actions from Moscow and Ankara? And at the same time, how to keep channels for dialogue open? How should Europe respond to Vladimir Putin’s surprising speech at Davos on 27 January, pleading for a reset of European and Russian relations? How should Europe react to Recep Erdogan’s recent decision to restart bilateral negotiations with Greece after 5 years, opening new perspectives of dialogue with Europe?

Without doubts, a stronger and more determined Europe might help Germany’s attempt to square the circle and advance together in its European and transatlantic integration projects after Chancellor Merkel’s departure. And Germany and Europe – acting in unison – could play a determinant role also in defending democracy across the Atlantic and around the world.

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