Jun 16, 2023

As Europe Looks East, Germany Needs to Take the Lead

The dramatic changes happening in Eastern Europe heavily impact the EU. However, so far Berlin has not risen to the task of redefining Europe’s Eastern and Russia policy. It needs to act urgently.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a press conference on the day they present the national security strategy during a press conference at the House of 'Bundespressekonferenz' in Berlin, Germany June 14, 2023.
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Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine has not only brought a new dynamic to the European Union’s neighborhood and enlargement policy, but also to the debate about the internal architecture of the EU itself. While French President Emmanuel Macron initiated the European Political Community (EPC) in 2022 and is promoting more cooperation among sovereign member states, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is promoting a change of the voting system in the EU and the transfer of more sovereignty to Brussels.

Of course, both countries have been proven wrong by the war. Germany and France failed with their accommodating policy vis-à-vis Russia. Instead, EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe such as Poland and the Baltic States were the forerunners when it came to getting President Vladimir Putin’s Russia right and supporting Ukraine from the beginning. With Ukraine and Moldova having been given EU candidate status last year, the eastward shift within the EU is even more noticeable; it goes far beyond the question of enlargement and is impacting the security, energy, and economic policy of EU member states.

Scholz has certainly adapted to the war: Germany is now the second-most important supporter of Ukraine also in terms of delivering military equipment. But Berlin is not providing leadership in Europe on the war in Ukraine—nor are Scholz or Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock shaping the EU’s enlargement policy and strategic reassessment of its Eastern neighborhood agenda. This “wait and see” approach weakens not only the EU, but also brings into doubt Germany’s role as a key country in the EU.

US Expectations and the Reality

Rather, Scholz seems to prefer to coordinate his Ukraine policy with Washington than with other key EU partners. Simultaneously, US decisionmakers see Germany as the key actor in Europe, especially when it comes to dealing with Russia and Ukraine. There are expectations that Berlin will play a bigger role in European defense and provide more leadership on the Ukraine.

In Washington, however, there is much less of a discernable strategic, long-term approach to Russia and European security than many European countries would generally expect. The White House focus on the Ukrainian counteroffensive also reflects the interest in keeping Russia’s war against Ukraine out of the US presidential election campaign in 2024. In the medium to long term, China remains the focal point for US politics; indeed, it’s one of the few issues that both parties in the US Congress can still agree upon.

Russia is seen as a part of the China challenge, but far less important than the focus on Beijing itself. Therefore, the US leadership will soon have an interest in gradually handing over more responsibility on Russia and Ukraine to the Europeans—with Berlin presumed to be in the driving seat, as the leading country in Europe.

Who Is Driving Policy?

But the US expectations of Germany will lead to frustration because Berlin is not preparing for a greater leadership role nor for a strategic upgrade. Its recently published National Security Strategy, based on a comprehensive and integrated security approach, is an important step for the German coalition government adapting to the new reality. But the government was unable to agree neither on setting up a national security council, as a main coordinating body, nor does it have a tool box available to implement its ambitious goals. Smaller EU member states that always looked to Berlin when dealing with issues of “Eastern policy” have already started to become irritated by Germany’s limited action, absence of leadership on core issues, and lack of strategic depth in its foreign policy thinking.

In consequence, it is not the German chancellor driving the EU on these questions, but the French president. In his recent speech at the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava, Emmanuel Macron offered the countries of Central and Eastern Europe greater cooperation and a seat at the decision-making table. Paris wants to move forward on security and military cooperation with individual EU member states, which is more attractive for smaller member states than Scholz’ idea of giving up more sovereignty. 

In his Prague speech in August 2022, Scholz opted to focus on reforming decision-making in the EU, moving to majority voting systems. The trend, however, much in line with Macron’s thinking, is toward the growing role of the member states and less the pooling of sovereignty. The strengthening of the political right in many European countries, the renaissance of the nation state amid growing insecurity, and economic stagnation will reinforce the trend toward renationalization and national sovereignty. The accession of new EU member states in the east and southeast, which regained their sovereignty only relatively recently with the fall of the Soviet Union, the willingness of these countries to pass on sovereign rights to Brussels beyond the existing treaties will likely be limited.

Germany and Europe’s Center of Gravity

Many observers argue that the center of gravity in Europe is moving to the east, or at least expect it to happen eventually. The reality is, however, that while developments in the east are driving Europe, the center of gravity isn’t shifting—Germany remains at its core—but is devoid of any actual leadership in the EU. Yes, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States should play a bigger role in conceptualizing and shaping EU policy toward Eastern Europe and Russia. But while Warsaw is a great supporter of Ukraine in this war, it remains a spoiler when it comes to dealing with the EU and Germany.

After the failure of its Ostpolitik Germany needs to fundamentally redefine its Eastern Europe and Russia policy. With its economic power, geographic proximity, interest, willingness to compromise on European issues, and, yes, its historical legacy Germany needs to be at the core of the processes when it comes to designing an integrated European policy approach to Russia, Eastern Europe, and security. It needs to define its new role, learning from the mistakes of the past and shifting from a mainly bureaucratic to a more strategic foreign and security policy. For this redefinition and learning process it needs support from Central and Eastern European, Baltic, and Nordic member states—those countries that border Russia or have a legacy of dealing with their big neighbor.

While Berlin is coordinating its policy with Paris it is lacking a parallel track with the Baltic, Central and Eastern European, and Nordic countries. However, these fellow NATO and/or EU member states are more important to Berlin than Paris on this question and when it comes to moving the EU forward. It remains to be seen whether or not France will really want to give the Central and Eastern Europeans a seat at the table; also, whether it can be the key actor on Eastern Europe. With the exception of Hungary, the Central and Eastern European member states are willing to take on more responsibility, they have the know-how and credibility in dealing with their Eastern neighbors, and they have more overlapping interests with Berlin than some of the “old” EU member states. Berlin should work in a more systematic and strategic way with these countries on EU enlargement and the Eastern neighborhood, as well as security policy.

In reality, there will be no fully-fledge EU enlargement in the way there has been in previous decades, neither for Ukraine nor for Moldova. Ukraine is too big to be integrated into the current decision-making and funding schemes. It would eat up big funds for agriculture and would change the current internal agricultural market. The EU’s Eastern member states would no longer be recipients of EU funds, but net payers. At this point, solidarity with Ukraine is likely to end. Therefore, only partial, and gradual, integration in specific sectors will be possible—which will go along with changing the architecture of the EU with regard to the budget, decision-making processes, and the voting system. The thinking in concentric circles is back, favored by Macron, in which integration in different areas and at different speeds will take place while the benefits of being part of the EU will be more limited.

Germany in the New European Security Policy

Within the context of the renaissance of security policy in Europe, Germanys Zeitenwende (“historic turn”) is a big step forward in addressing the new reality. Germany needs to fulfill its role as a center of gravity for a new European security policy. In the framework of NATO’s northern enlargement and increasing investments in security and defense by all European member states (those in the East in particular), Berlin should integrate its defense spending and upgrade its relationships, especially with Central and Eastern European, Baltic, and Nordic states. That means not only building up a common air defense system and integrating armies but also creating common production lines for weapons and munition. The goal should be to end national solo efforts and create an integrated security system with the German economic and technological know-how at its core.

For sure, coordination and cooperation with Washington is crucial, but Europe needs to build up its integrated capabilities to become a sovereign security actor, one that is able to shape the new European security order, no matter who is US president—an ambition France certainly shares.

For this to happen it is crucial to integrate the EU’s Eastern neighbors, Ukraine and Moldova in particular, into a European defense wing that is also part of NATO. Germany should play a crucial role in helping to integrate Ukraine and Moldova into the newly built integrated European security architecture and production system for arms and weaponry. The first step will be security partnerships with the Eastern neighbors in the European NATO framework, which will include systematic military training and inclusive military production. At a later point there will be a NATO integration of Ukraine and a full integration of the Eastern neighbors into the European security system with Germany as a key actor.

There is a long way to go, but it is time to start this process now. Berlin needs to shift strategically and mentally while doing what is necessary. Its new National Security Strategy now needs to become the core of a European Security Strategy. If Berlin misses the moment, it will lose influence in Europe and weaken the EU overall.

Stefan Meister leads the Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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