When Chancellor Merkel steps down at the end of September, whoever takes her place will find that there’s no clear roadmap. We talk to the key parties about Germany’s future on the world stage.
Take a moment to think about the world of diplomacy when Angela Merkel first took power in 2005. It’s not so much that the major leaders of the time – George W Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Hu Jintao and, of course, Vladimir Putin – engender a particularly warm and fuzzy feeling but that the rhetoric of politics and diplomacy, even among the more autocratic regimes, was markedly more measured. This was before the financial crisis, refugee crisis, Crimea invasion, Brexit, Trump, pandemic; before MeToo and Black Lives Matter. It was a time where listening, compromise and competence were in vogue. And it was an environment in which a no- nonsense, common-sense leader like Angela Merkel, who prides herself on maintaining order, could thrive.
Fast-forward 16 years and the environment that Merkel leaves behind when she steps down at the end of September is anything but serene. The style of domestic politics and geopolitics has become more combative, less compromising. Order and continuity? It’s not something many people crave. In an age of populism, half the public demand immediate progress, social justice and an aggressive defence of human rights. The other half demand the opposite: to resist cancel culture, self-righteousness and the “loony left”. It’s a world where autocrats in China and Russia feel emboldened to act in their own interests, free from the constraints of western values. And in Europe? Nations such as Hungary are increasingly willing to ignore the rules of Brussels and Berlin, with no fear of the consequences. Indeed, it’s ironic that the last EU summit of Merkel’s tenure, which involved serious clashes over a law deemed homophobic in Hungary and a refusal to engage Putin in talks, was described by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte as the most rancorous in his memory. The Merkelian method of compromise and engagement seems to be crumbling.
On Germany’s relationship with Europe:
“The major global challenges can only be solved if we tackle them together, with like-minded partners. Germany, as well as the entire EU, must become more weltpolitikfähig – able to act globally. Where we are very clear is that Germany’s foreign policy should always be seen in a European context.”
On Russia and China:
“I will always follow the Cs when dealing with China: co-operate where possible, compete where needed, confront and contain where necessary. China will be the big foreign-policy challenge over the next years and decades, and we Germans follow a policy where our pragmatism is always based on firm values and principles.”
On EU-UK relations:
“The UK will never be just a simple third country; 46 years of EU membership have created so many links between us and a broad exchange on so many different fields from culture to politics, sport and the economy. The UK remains our political partner and in international organisations we share the same values and principles. And, finally, the UK is a rock-solid Nato ally. That’s why I’m hopeful that we can really make this partnership work.”
On foreign engagements and defence:
“Nato is the backbone of our Euro-Atlantic security. We as Germans, together with our European partners, must assume more responsibility. It’s about strengthening the European pillar within Nato and, in the end, spending more on our own defence and security – and this is where you will not hear concrete promises from the Green side.”
McAllister is a Scottish-German senior member of the European Parliament and a former state premier of Lower Saxony.
“She held Europe together because of this very diplomatic way of dealing with difficult topics,” Katarina Barley, a former justice minister in Merkel’s coalition government and now a deputy leader for the Social Democrats in the European Parliament, tells monocle. “But when it comes to European values, to dealing with governments in Poland and Hungary, I would have liked her to be clearer – to take a stand for democracy and the rule of law. She did not do that enough.”
In other words, even Merkel herself has been increasingly hard-pressed to maintain order. Pragmatism isn’t really what geopolitics is about these days. You are expected to take a firm stand. And although Merkel might have helped to turn Germany into an influential economic power and global player, it will be up to her successors to decide what that really means. “This is part of Merkel’s legacy: that Germany needs to play a bigger role in the world,” says Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And this pressure is felt in Berlin. Already under Merkel it was a constant theme from our partners and friends: that Germany needs to take more responsibility. It didn’t come from us; it was imposed. The candidates understand this but I’m not sure how ready they really are to change things.” That leaves Germany – and Europe – faced with two key questions when federal elections are held this September: who will voters choose to take the rudder after Merkel steps down? And what direction will they steer if not right down the comfortable middle?
The “who” matters first and foremost. The three leaders vying to replace Merkel as chancellor are Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats, Annalena Baerbock of The Greens and Social Democrat Olaf Scholz. Of the three, Scholz has the most experience, but none of these figures has the same reputation and network of relationships, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. It’s also partly because of Merkel’s stature that her successors are reluctant to speak too openly about shaking things up. Listen to German politicians reflecting on Merkel’s time in office and there’s a simple theme that shines through: stability. Call it the “Merkel Doctrine” if you like: an uncanny ability to keep things from crumbling and falling apart; to find compromise whether the negotiated solution is truly popular or not – think keeping Greece in the euro. It’s a style that permeates German foreign policymaking. After Merkel’s final “State of Europe” speech before Germany’s parliament in June, even opposition leaders focused their praise on her for keeping the EU together against all odds.
On Germany’s relationship with Europe:
“There are points where we need to take a strong stand. What would a Social Democratic leader do differently? We need to be very clear that there are limits, as laid down in the European treaties: they include democracy, rule of law, separation of powers, independence of judiciary. You really have to stand up – and there are means to do so bilaterally or by influencing the decisions of the EU.”
On Russia andChina:
“What’s going on in China with the Uighurs, what’s going on in Russia with Alexei Navalny – that is something that we cannot be silent about. There are cases where you have to bring up the prospect of sanctions. It is right that member states, including Germany, do not do this unilaterally but within the EU.”
On EU-UK relations:
“It’s a pity that we have drifted so far apart. There is a chance of getting very close again. The current UK government is trying to gain political profit out of a conflict with the EU – and as long as that remains the case then it will be extremely difficult. But the people do feel close to each other and therein lies my real hope.”
On foreign engagements and defence:
“Because of our history, we Germans are very much oriented towards diplomacy, peacekeeping and trying to bring people together; this is what we are very good at. We are less in favour of military interventions than other member states but this is also part of the EU. We all have different histories, cultures and we have to find the common ground.”
On Merkel’s legacy:
“Merkel came from the eastern part of Germany and had a concrete vision of democracy and the rule of law; it was a thread of her politics that I appreciated. But she never offered a vision on how to change the conservative parts of our society. Climate change must now go hand in hand with everything, including in the conservative countryside. We need more visionary people.”
On climate change:
“In the past few decades we haven’t done our homework. We are not at the forefront globally when it comes to renewable energy and other steps that we could have taken. We need a new government that has more ecological ambition.”
On protecting European values:
“We pushed for a rule-of-law mechanism and we can now cut funding if a country is not complying – but we don’t want to be so tough that we risk losing them. The ideologies in Hungary and Poland exist in all EU countries; we have to put more emphasis on dialogue and strengthen supporters in opposition. Human rights are non-negotiable. If we let our values go, the EU’s common market is not strong enough to keep Europe together.”
On mobility and rail:
“We should be incentivising rail travel. This is what we are trying to encourage in the 2021 ‘European Year of Rail’. But we need member states to place rail on the same level as other forms of transport and build the missing links between countries. Many national rail operators’ traffic plans still stop near the border; we have to develop a more European way to plan our railway system.”
All of Merkel’s principal successors as chancellor pay lip service to this concept of stability and compromise. Even The Greens and Baerbock, who have emerged as the most significant challenger to Merkel’s Christian Democrats and would represent the most radical change in direction – increasing taxes on high earners, stronger environmental reforms, a more values-driven foreign policy – are in the ascendancy in large part because they’ve tacked closer to the moderate centre of politics in recent years. It’s a style of diplomacy that also comes from Germany’s postwar history – and one that the country is reluctant to shake. Even Merkel, despite often being hailed by outsiders as “the leader of the free world”, preferred to exercise that power behind the scenes – and always within a European context. Baerbock of The Greens has echoed this sentiment in pre-election debates: “A German foreign policy is a European foreign policy,” she has said.
You would be hard-pressed to find a major party that disagrees. Although nationalism poses a major geopolitical challenge, it’s a sentiment that remains mostly on the fringes within Germany itself. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (afd) party, which in its platform this year called for Germany to exit the EU, looks set to lose ground in September’s elections. “It would be rather dangerous for Germany to leave the European Union,” says Lars Patrick Berg, a former afd lawmaker in the European Parliament, who left the party earlier this year over its call to leave the bloc and joined a splinter party known as the Liberal-Conservative Reformers. “Germany is in a position of strength within the European Union and should use this position to further German national interests.” While disaffection with government is real – particularly in many former eastern German states – few Germans really want Berlin to act outside a European context.
“Angela Merkel has done a lot for Germany and on the international side but inequality has grown really high in the past few years and I would have wished for more social policies. When I look to Europe, I remember the austerity policies towards southern Europe, which were not the answer to the crisis.”
On security and defence:
“Security doesn’t have to mean more militarisation. Germany and the EU should strive for disarmament projects and diplomatic engagement. It’s not right to have more military interventions; the history of Afghanistan has shown that our criticisms of this war were right. At the European level there are efforts to build a military union but people in the EU believe in other values. They believe we’ve created a peace project here.”
On EU and German foreign policy:
“Economic interests are the first value that the EU and Germany fight for. We see it in sanctions: they’re not linked to human rights or democratic questions but to our interests. We open up markets to European products when we talk about China, where there is a symmetric competition, but we impose asymmetric sanctions on Cuba. Sanctions are not the way to solve conflicts.”
“First, there should be solidarity with migrants and solidarity within the EU; we are leaving Greece alone with the problem and its economic impact; this needs to change. Second, Merkel might have allowed a lot of people to come to Germany but she didn’t deal with the social-political problems, such as housing shortages and high rents. A humanitarian aid policy must be tied to social policies.”
Demirel is a Turkish-born German politician and member of the European Parliament since 2019.
On Merkel’s legacy:
“Stability is very important and keeping the EU together is very important. But the key question is: what is the vision for Europe’s future? And in that, I’m not sure that Merkel had the answer.”
On Germany’s role in Europe:
“It’s not credible to think that Germany alone can compete economically with the US, China or India. But I’m convinced that a reformed EU is in Germany’s interest; it should be an EU that is primarily concerned with trade and not so much with federalism. Transferring more sovereignty to the EU wouldn’t be in the interest of many member states.”
On foreign engagements and defence:
“To take more responsibility in Nato, in regard to defence policy or defence spending or contributions to military operations – that’s the real world. If you can’t safeguard your trade routes in the Indian Ocean or the Horn of Africa or elsewhere, then you’re going to be crushed between various third-party players. So Germany does need to take more responsibility even if, on a national level, this is rather unpopular.”
“You need migration to attract talent and young people who are willing to contribute. And it’s also important to uphold rules that enable people who are under threat in various parts of the world – politically, or because of a different sexuality, for example – to grant them a safe haven. But it’s not possible to attract and invite everybody; this has created problems in various EU member states. It is of the utmost importance that migration policy be reformed.”
Berg is a European parliamentarian and founding member of the Alternative for Germany party. He quit the afd in 2021 over its promise to take Germany out of the EU.
And yet, under the cover of that “Europe first” message and the general mantle of stability, the disagreements about Germany’s future foreign-policy direction are significant (see panels). One of the biggest questions is whether Germany should spend more on its creaky military – as repeatedly demanded by the US under the banner of Nato – and take a greater role in foreign military engagements. Merkel’s own party is committed to spending 2 per cent of Germany’s gdp on defence (though it’s worth noting they’ve failed to reach that goal despite years of trying). Baerbock, while promising to equip the German military with the means to carry out its missions, has refused to commit to the same. The Greens and Social Democrats instead suggest that other spending areas – development aid, for instance – should count towards the 2 per cent goal.
The second biggest disagreement is whether to prioritise Germany’s economy and trade ties over a more robust defence of democratic values. Merkel the pragmatist was on full display at the start of this year, when she pushed hard for the EU to agree a new investment treaty with China, only to see it put on hold in the face of concerns over China’s treatment of Uyghurs and Hong Kong. The same goes for the building of a natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, between Germany and Russia, or even when it comes to relations with the UK post-Brexit and the US post-Trump.
For Merkel and conservatives, these issues are separate: standing up for values doesn’t necessarily preclude robust economic co-operation. But for many of her opponents the issues are increasingly linked. “She has never defined a vision of where she wants Europe to stand in the 21st century between a hegemonic US and rising China,” says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of the Free Democrats. “If you contrast that with Emmanuel Macron and the speech he gave at the Sorbonne in 2017, for example, the differences could not be starker.”
Unlike Macron, Merkel leads by her personal example but preferring to prioritise economics and pragmatic relations over foisting her own values on other nations. “You could argue that she blocked Europe in many ways,” says Puglierin. “That she blocked progress and prevented Europe from being more ambitious or from aiming higher. She was very status quo-oriented.”
It’s a mindset that has become increasingly at odds with the world we live in. For Germany’s next leader, the status quo will not be an option.
On European security:
“Germany, due to its history, will never be a major military actor. So it’s essential that we understand ourselves to be part of the Western alliance. The idea of a European army is realistic if you take a step-by-step approach: increasing our interoperability, then training and educating our officers, and moving to a defence union with shared capabilities. We want to build on that but our alliance with the US will continue to be imperative.”
On defending European values:
“As liberals, we had long been clamouring for and drafting a rule-of-law mechanism, so countries that trample on European values are not able to obtain major subsidies from the European budget – because that would simply encourage those in power to continue with their anti-democratic ways.”
“For a long time we assumed that by engaging with China it would follow in the West’s footsteps. That has not happened. Now the situation on a strategic level should be one of firm alignment with other Western democracies. That said, the German business community has strong interests in China so it is legitimate to define a timeframe to reduce our risk.”
On climate co-operation:
“Germany is active in advancing the climate agenda but more needs to be done. The most important element of the European Commission’s proposal is the extension of the emission-trading scheme to all economic sectors. If we want to incentivise engineers, businesses and researchers to limit emissions, the best way is to work with universal price signals.”
Graf Lambsdorff is a former vice-president of the European Parliament; he was elected to the German Bundestag in 2017.
Images: Getty Images