IT WAS a heart-warming moment in the freezing wind of the Alsatian mountains. On November 10th the presidents of Germany and France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Emmanuel Macron (pictured), shared a hug as they opened a French-German war memorial at Hartmannswillerkopf, where 30,000 soldiers died during months-long battles for control of the peak in 1915. Every generation had to be reminded anew, said Mr Steinmeier, why the task “to lead Europe into a hope-filled, better future” fell to Germany and France.
Mr Steinmeier’s remarks underscored a commitment to European union, one of the twin pillars of German foreign policy since 1945, alongside participation in a multilateral world underwritten by America. But warm words cannot disguise the fact that these days both pillars are shaky. America under Donald Trump is retreating from its role as underwriter, in favour of a doctrine of national self-interest. Europe faces a number of simmering crises. East and west are divided over migration; north and south over the future of the euro zone. Separatism in Britain and Spain adds further instability.
These challenges are to the fore as Germany struggles to form a new government. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), along with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens were hoping this week to commit themselves to forming a coalition, after weeks of difficult exploratory talks. But the parties no longer have an obvious example to follow. “German foreign policy was always reactive,” says Volker Perthes of SWP, a think-tank. “That approach doesn’t work as well as it used to. These days, people look to [Germany] for guidance.”
The reluctant senior hegemon
The question is what form this guidance will take. Germany has neither the intention nor the military and economic heft to fill the gap left by a disengaging America. Most experts say the priority of the new government should be European unity. A divided continent is an invitation to Russia, China and, at least on trade, the Trump administration, to play Europeans off against each other. “The election of Mr Trump has driven home the fact that Europe can no longer outsource its security across the Atlantic,” says Wolfgang Ischinger, who runs the annual Munich security conference. Being prepared to do more at the European level may also help safeguard the relationship with America. “Reducing Germany’s trade surplus by raising domestic investment, and living up to its NATO commitments by spending more on defence—those are not unreasonable demands,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution.
To strengthen Europe, closer co-operation with France is a priority for all parties in the coalition talks. Over the weekend members of parliament from the CDU, FDP and Greens published a joint appeal to take up Mr Macron’s recent suggestions for the future of Europe, including efforts to improve asylum policy and to create a “more crisis-proof, stable and democratic” euro zone. However, agreeing on what is necessary to achieve this will be tricky, particularly if, as still looks plausible, the FDP takes the finance ministry, and its leadership keeps the new government committed to balanced budgets.
Moving closer to France also carries risks. Eastern European nations, already wary of the EU’s criticism of their domestic politics and German demands to do more for refugees, may feel excluded by a strengthened Paris-Berlin axis. Keeping the eastern neighbours on board will be essential. On November 13th 23 EU members, including Germany, Poland and the Baltic states, signed up to PESCO (an acronym for “permanent structured co-operation”), a mechanism for defence co-operation agreements that backers hope will be the embryo of a future defence union. France had wanted a smaller group; that Germany’s eastern neighbours are included is an important signal, says Sophia Besch, a security expert at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank. But for PESCO to succeed, much more is needed, including financial commitments which German voters may still be unwilling to accept.
Germany’s eastern neighbours would also welcome a more robust policy towards Russia. That has a good chance of happening under the new government. The CDU-SPD coalition condemned the occupation of Crimea and supported the EU’s sanctions against Russia. But it did not go as far as to abandon the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which has long worried Poland and the Baltic states, and drawn criticism from the EU for its potential to undermine the sanctions regime. And there were always those, particularly in the SPD but also in the CDU’s business-oriented wing, who made no secret of preferring a more conciliatory stance towards Russia—they included the SPD’s Mr Steinmeier, a former foreign minister and now president. In a visit to Moscow last month (the first by a German president for seven years), he vowed to work against the “alienation” of the two countries and looked on as a pleased Vladimir Putin announced a revival of economic relations.
But with the SPD gone from government, a “Jamaica” coalition (the parties’ colours are those of the Jamaican flag) may be able to present a more united stance on Russia. A firmer line is likely if the Greens, who may take the helm of the foreign ministry and have long been critical of Russian authoritarianism and intervention in both Ukraine and Syria, unite with the more hawkish faction in the CDU. A Jamaica government would be unlikely to advocate the unilateral softening of sanctions; it might even rethink Nord Stream 2, hopes Norbert Röttgen, a CDU MP who headed the previous Bundestag’s foreign-affairs committee. That may be a hard sell for some in the FDP, whose leader, Christian Lindner, has criticised the sanctions. But unless the FDP takes the foreign ministry, which it has adamantly said it does not want, it may not be able to do much more than snipe from the sidelines.
There are signs that Germany is more willing to step up than it used to be. Defence spending, though still far below NATO’s target of 2% of GDP, rose by a tenth in 2017. German troops are now engaged in several foreign missions without much domestic opposition. Mrs Merkel’s new government should be able to build on this legacy. But it has a difficult road ahead.
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