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Mar 22, 2024

Germany Needs to Recover Its European Spirit

The government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz set out to define its foreign and security policy in “the European interest,” but has regularly failed to do so. It should change course now.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a press statement with French President Emmanuel Macron and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, ahead of their trilateral meeting of the consultation forum 'Weimar Triangle', at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany March 15, 2024.
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When Germany’s so-called “traffic-light” coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz took office in December 2021, it presented, in its coalition agreement, one of the most ambitious European policies ever adopted by a German government. 

Berlin's commitment to a stronger European Union was a recurrent theme throughout the document written by Scholz’ center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). The new government pledged to take the coordination of its European policy to a new level and to “take a clear and early position on the European Commission’s projects.” It also declared that henceforth it would organize its foreign, security, development, and trade policies “on the basis of common European interests” and promote European sovereignty. 

Germany’s China policy was to become more European, too. And in the disputes with countries such as Hungary and Poland over the rule of law issues, the new government wanted to take a hard line. The incoming Scholz government also looked to the long term: a federal European state was to be created; the EU’s common foreign and security policy was to be reformed and made more effective through majority decisions. 

The coalition agreement read as if the new German government had understood that a policy aimed primarily at maintaining the status quo in the EU—as had been the case during the Merkel era—was no longer in keeping with the times. Instead, it wanted to take on a more proactive, “shaping” role with the aim of creating a more effective EU.

Falling Short

Judged by its own aspirations, the results of the Scholz government’s European policy past the half-term mark are mixed at best. The coalition failed to better coordinate its European policy. Instead, the three coalition partners often took far too long to decide how Germany should vote in the EU. In some cases, for instance the EU’s recent proposal for a corporate sustainability due diligence law, they even failed to reach agreement—and Berlin was forced to abstain. 

In his major speech on the future of Europe in Prague in August 2022, Scholz made it clear that he sees Germany’s role less as being at the forefront of the EU and leading the way. Rather, as a “country at the heartof the continent,” it should do everything it can to “bring together East and West, North and South in Europe.” That sounded very much like his predecessor Angela Merkel. Leading, according to Berlin, means working with others to find solutions—not going it alone, but acting as a unifying force. However, Germany’s partners have often felt too little of the intention to define “German interests in the light of European interests,” as the Scholz coalition had set out to do. In fact, Berlin all too often failed to consider the reactions in other European capitals when it set out its own policies.

This was often due to disastrous communication. For example, the €200 billion “double whammy” announced by Scholz in September 2022 to cushion the impact of higher energy prices on German citizens and companies was not coordinated in advance with European partners. Italy, Spain, France, and the European Commission reacted angrily, complaining of unfair distortions of the EU’s single market. Germany was not showing solidarity, they said, because less financially strong member states would not be able to organize such a generous aid package. 

In an opinion piece, European Commissioners Thierry Breton and Paolo Gentiloni warned of a “Europe-wide subsidy race” that could undermine solidarity and unity in Europe. The German government countered that other EU member states were also protecting their companies from the effects of the energy crisis and helping their citizens. This was true, but the impression that Germany was going it alone had already taken hold. 

There was also irritation in Brussels and in European capitals over Germany’s China policy. When the Scholz coalition took office, there were hopes in Brussels in particular that Berlin would in future seek less of a special relationship with Beijing than had been the case under former Chancellor Angela Merkel. For this reason, Scholz’ decision to travel to Beijing in November 2022 with a large business delegation to pay his respects to the Chinese president and party leader, Xi Jinping, was met with criticism. 

French President Emmanuel Macron had previously suggested to Scholz that they make the trip together—to send a message of EU unity to Beijing and counter Chinese attempts to play one European country off against another. Scholz declined. (The fact that Macron’s joint trip with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in April 2023 did not become a showcase of European unity either is another story.) Earlier the chancellery had met with incomprehension, including from the SPD’s Green and FDP coalition partners, when it decided to allow Chinese state-owned company Cosco take a minority share in one of the Port of Hamburg’s terminals. 

No Real “Framework for Action”

However, Germany was met with the by far strongest criticism when it came to defending Europe and supporting Ukraine—partly because such high expectations were placed on Berlin. Many European partners had enthusiastically welcomed Scholz’ “Zeitenwende” speech, announcing a historic turning point. The far-reaching announcements of February 2022, which amounted to a real revolution in German foreign, defense, and energy policy, met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Indeed, the chancellor’s decisive and courageous approach was seen as an inspiration by many European partners. If Germany could achieve such a shift, there would be no excuse for other capitals to not do the same (e.g., spending 2 percent of a country’s GDP on defense). 

Many hoped that, finally, a German government was ready to take the lead in European defense and play a decisive role in promoting European interests. Toward the end of his speech, Scholz had explicitly stated, “For Germany and for all of the EU’s other member states, that means not simply asking what they can extract in Brussels for their own country. But asking: What is the best decision for our Union? Europe is our framework for action.”

But Berlin subsequently struggled to fulfil this role. Only a few months later Germany’s partners, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, began to doubt the seriousness of the announced changes. What Berlin delivered fell short of what Warsaw, Tallinn, or Riga had hoped for. For Poland and the Baltic states, February 24, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, was not a “turning point.” Moscow had already started the war in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea—the Germans just consistently misjudged Putin’s intentions. 

To this day, the perception in the region is that Berlin has not yet understood how Moscow actually “ticks”—and what is at stake for the whole continent. Partners noted that Germany was able to build an LNG terminal in record time, but that it took the country far longer to award contracts to industry for Bundeswehr procurement projects. 

Leading from Behind (the US)

The German government was rarely a pioneer in supplying military equipment to Ukraine. Rather, it was always keen to act “in lockstep” with others, first and foremost with Washington. This became particularly evident when Berlin could only take the decision to deploy Leopard 2 tanks when the United States also committed to sending its own main battle tank, the M1 Abrams. When in May 2023 the United Kingdom and France decided to send their Scalp and Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles to Ukraine, the German chancellor refused to join them by supplying the (more powerful) Taurus—even accepting a bitter internal coalition dispute. 

This has earned Germany the reputation among some European partners of being too hesitant vis-à-vis Russia. The latest example of this were French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments—made when he first openly spoke of “not ruling out” deploying troops on the ground in Ukraine—that “some” (clearly meaning Berlin) only wanted to supply “sleeping bags and helmets” at the start of the war.

But this criticism falls too short. Germany has now supplied more weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment to Ukraine than any other country in Europe. According to its own figures, the German government has spent around €32 billion so far in aid in the form of humanitarian assistance, direct payments, or weapons—in addition to the support Germany provides to Ukraine through EU programs. This is no reason for complacency, however. After all, Germany is also the economically strongest country in Europe. Nevertheless, French criticism in particular sounds cheap, given the fact that Paris can only point to far less favorable figures here.

Setting the Tone

Behind the Franco-German controversy of early 2024 lies the question of the right way to support Ukraine. While Macron believes it is necessary to be able to escalate to deter Russia, Scholz is more concerned about the Russian reaction and believes it is better to draw clear red lines for Western involvement. 

But underneath lies the larger question of who sets the tone in European defense. France continues to advocate greater European autonomy and prioritizes a strong, competitive European defense industry. Germany, in contrast, sees the transatlantic alliance as indispensable for Europe’s security and thinks it is crucially important to keep the United States engaged—despite the Damoclean threat of Donald Trump winning the next US presidential election in November 2024.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s priority was to close military capability gaps as quickly as possible, buying equipment that was available on the market and had a proven track record. Instead of “European solutions,” which are often seen as too time-consuming and complex, the German government opted to buy “off the shelf.” 

This resulted in a shopping list of mainly American-produced weapons systems, including the F-35 fighter jet, to maintain Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement. This decision in particular has led to great skepticism in Paris regarding Berlin’s general ambitions—although the German government remains politically committed to the European armaments projects Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) and is willing to provide the financial means.

The French are similarly skeptical about the German-initiated European Sky Shield initiative (ESSI)—the jointly-developed air defense system for Europe that has become the German government’s “European” flagship project. So far, 21 countries have joined the initiative, but neither France nor Poland are involved. The example of ESSI is a very clear illustration of the Scholz government’s vision of its own leadership role and successful European co-operation. 

Under pressure to make up for decades of underinvestment in defense, Berlin prefers to follow its own path, based on Germany’s national interests and priorities, and to invite other European partners to join its initiatives. It wants to promote European cooperation without giving up too much sovereignty to the EU institutions. While Berlin principally welcomes Brussels’ efforts to boost European defense capabilities by launching initiatives to create a resilient, competitive, and innovative European defense technology industrial base, it sees the potential of those initiatives as rather limited and is not investing much energy or resources to advance them. 

By doing so, the Scholz government sadly fails to acknowledge the potential of the EU as an “enabler” of an increased European defense capability—by providing a framework and incentives for the development of European capabilities that can then also be used within the NATO framework. This includes financial aspects: Issuing European Defense Bonds, for which Paris was pushing in late March, to finance Europe’s needed rearmament, currently vehemently opposed by Berlin, would also help toward bridging Germany’s gaping budget hole when it comes to continously meeting the 2-percent spending goal in the future.

Seeking Greater Cooperation

Faced with external challenges—Russia’s war against Ukraine, the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the next US president, the growing popularity of far-right parties across Europe—the coalition needs to get its act together and seek greater cooperation with Paris and other European partners. The revived Weimar Triangle is a great opportunity in this regard.

If Scholz is serious about what he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg in May 2023, i.e. that “Europe’s future lies in our hands,” then this applies to Germany even more than to other countries. As the EU’s most powerful and richest country, Germany is expected to take a more proactive leadership role in strengthening Europe’s ability to act both internally and externally. In order to fulfil this role, the governing coalition in Berlin must make European interests the basis of its decisions more decisively than before and come back to the spirit of the coalition agreement. It is only in this way that Berlin can fulfill its commitment to pursue foreign and security policies “in the European interest.”

Jana Puglierin is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and leads its Berlin office.

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