Monthly Mind June 2018: "Germany: from poster child to whipping boy?"
Until recently, Germany was regarded as a poster child of political and economic stability in Europe – and Chancellor Merkel even as the leader of the free world. Today though, everyone is picking on Germany. How to get out of this predicament? Germany needs allies – and that is why Berlin will have to take some steps towards its closest partners, argues MSC Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger.
Until recently, Germany was regarded as a poster child of political and economic stability in Europe and Chancellor Merkel, due to Donald Trump's antics, even as the leader of the free world. Today though, everyone is picking on Germany: the Americans, because they demand more commitment from Germany on defense spending and concessions on trade issues; Southern Europeans, because they feel economically strong-armed by Berlin; and Central and Eastern Europeans, because they have had enough of Germany's sententious insistence on the rule of law and on burden sharing in the refugee question. This situation is anything but a good foundation for German foreign policy, which faces several fundamental challenges at the same time.
Germany finds itself caught in the White House's crosshairs. With his decision to impose punitive tariffs, Trump delivered a gut punch to transatlantic economic relations. And by rejecting the Iran deal, Trump has torpedoed the established transatlantic and European foreign policy. In doing so, the President revealed how much he cares for the transatlantic partnership and the unity of the West: namely, not very much. Now, we are facing a fundamental transatlantic crisis that is far more serious than the usual squabbles on isolated issues, be it about the Iraq war, Middle East policy or NATO burden-sharing.
The problem of Iran also affects Germany’s Russia policy. Only the most naïve observers will attribute the more agreeable exchanges with Moscow of late to Merkel’s and Foreign Minister Maas' charming character. The Kremlin is now resolutely seizing the opportunity to drive a wedge between Europe and the US. According to recent surveys, Germans already consider Russia a more trustworthy partner than Trump’s United States! This is poison to the transatlantic relationship.
Germany is also the focal point of criticism in energy policy. Trump will support Ukraine, but also Poland and the Baltic States, in their continued "no" to Nord Stream 2 – no matter how promising the outcome of Berlin's negotiations with Moscow on guarantees for gas transits through Ukraine may look. The anti-German pronouncements made by Trump at his meeting with the presidents of the three Baltic States should serve as a warning to Berlin: Germany faces the threat of political isolation.
And at the NATO summit in July, barring a miracle, Trump will single out Germany in particular to reprimand it for failing to meet joint targets on defense spending. A heavy storm is brewing over this issue!
Berlin also faces serious challenges in terms of European policy. For Poland and Hungary, the timing of the attacks against Berlin is very convenient. German demands for budgetary discipline will now be met with resentment from Italy as well. In times of transatlantic and global political threats, though, we need nothing more than a closely united European Union.
How can Germany get itself out of this predicament? Germany needs allies – and that is why Berlin will have to take some steps towards our closest partners. This goes both for our willingness to invest more into European defense and for our contribution to furthering the development of the European Union.
Firstly, the German government should take a long overdue cabinet decision in time for the NATO summit in July to provide the Ministry of Defense with an additional 10 to 15 billion euros – which experts overwhelmingly believe the Bundeswehr needs to make an appropriate contribution to security and defense in NATO and the EU in the coming years. We are doing this in the interest of our own security, not for Trump's sake!
Secondly, the touted major Franco-German initiative to reform the EU and the euro zone is overdue. This is the only way to contain the centrifugal forces of populist, nationalist and illiberal movements all across the EU. A renewed EU "that protects," as President Macron put it, costs money. The German debate on the EU must not be reduced to the small-minded and myopic demand that the EU should not cost more. If the EU is to accomplish more, it will cost considerably more. Fiscal discipline should therefore not be sacrosanct: What exactly do we gain from balancing our national budget if the EU, the core concern of German foreign policy for six decades, is blowing up in our face?
Germany is doing well today. In the medium and long term, however, Germany will only do well if our neighbors are also doing well. So Germany should seize the opportunity now to invest in the future of our two most important alliances.
Wolfgang Ischinger is the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and teaches security policy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.