Toward a New German Foreign Policy

Nov 30, 2020

Making Europe Going Global

Germany’s recent achievements in taking the EU forward are considerable and laudable, but insufficient. Berlin must now put as much effort into making Europe count on the world stage.

The quadriga on top of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
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Germany is slowly coming of age. For over a decade now, it has been described as Europe’s reluctant hegemon. Its hegemony, premised upon economic strength, has become increasingly apparent over the years. Its reluctance has taken different forms, from a knee-jerk abhorrence of military interventions abroad to an unwillingness to act; it has also often failed to simply “think European” in terms of the advancement of the EU project. 

On European matters, that reluctance is fading. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Berlin has assumed the responsibility of leadership. By spearheading an ambitious recovery fund and the next multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2021-27, Germany has not only set the foundations for the EU’s post-pandemic recovery and resilience. It has facilitated a historic step forward in the integration process, picking up the work left undone after the eurozone crisis, with all the lacerating divisions this gave rise to.

Advancing Three Key Goals

If the German EU presidency is crowned with an agreement on Next Generation EU and the new MFF with rule of law conditionality enshrined, it will have contributed significantly to three fundamental goals.

First, Berlin will have ensured that the EU navigates its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Time will tell whether the responses developed so far will be sufficient, or if far more radical ones will be necessary come spring 2021, but what is clear already is that without a concerted response, EU member states would have been infinitely less well equipped to exit the health crisis and the socio-economic crisis it has ignited.

Second, Germany will have saved the European project itself. After the half-baked solutions to the eurozone crisis, and the total inability to develop a common European response to the so-called migration crisis, the EU could not have afforded another failure. By driving a robust EU response to the pandemic, Berlin has done a great service to the European project as such. While not a Hamiltonian moment as some have claimed, this is a "Delorsian" moment, on a par with the advances made under former EU Commission President Jacques Delors (1985-95), and Germany has played no small part in bringing it about.

Third, by supporting the weaving of the European Green Deal into the fabric of Next Generation EU, Berlin has played a key role in giving the European Union an identity once again. With the EU’s narrative of being a peace project having waned, and the narrative of prosperity generated by the single market becoming less convincing, the EU has not had a good story to tell for the last decade. Its coming together during the pandemic, telling itself and the world that it will navigate its way out of this crisis together in a green (and digital) way, has given the EU a much-needed identity once again.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

All this is of existential importance, and Germany’s contribution to it must be acknowledged. Yet it is not enough. For Germany and the EU to flourish, making real contributions to the global agenda is equally important. On paper and in its announcements, Berlin is getting it. It has championed the work on European defense and strategic autonomy, and it acknowledges that a healthier transatlantic relationship has to be based on greater European responsibility, notably in our surrounding regions. It observes the crystallizing US-China confrontation and, while clear on where its alliances lie, it sees in European autonomy the recipe to avoid becoming the battlefield of a new great power confrontation. 

However, words are yet to be followed by deeds. Germany is still tempted to believe that its comfort zone of an international liberal order, which rests on American power, can be restored and protracted forever. The major risk that Germany and Europe as a whole risk with the Biden administration is precisely feeding and fueling that illusion. With US President Joe Biden in the White House, some will be tempted to stick their heads in the sand, putting global ambitions to rest, wrapped in a chimera of a comfortable return to a past that is fast disappearing. Others will argue that pursuing European strategic autonomy is incompatible with a strengthened transatlantic bond, and the priority should be the latter, not the former.

Germany knows better: European autonomy is not incompatible with a stronger transatlantic bond, but, rather, is the precondition for it. Only a more capable and thus more autonomous Europe can meaningfully work with Biden’s United States to make multilateralism great again. From pandemic response to trade, security, and climate, Europeans and Americans will be back in business. In order to be able to deliver, however, European autonomy is a must.  

Deep down, Berlin must know that the world will not return to the international liberal order that we once knew and cherished, and that the future will most likely be more normatively contested. This future is not necessarily illiberal, but it will certainly be non-liberal in which liberal and illiberal values will uneasily coexist. Yet it can be rules-based and multilateral, too. For this to happen, what is essential is that Germany assumes as much European leadership on the global front as it is now doing on the internal one. A global Europe in practice cannot achieved by Germany alone. But it certainly cannot come into being without it.

Nathalie Tocci is the Director of Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome.

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