Berlin Cable

June 30, 2021

Merkel’s Final Act

During her last few weeks in office, the German chancellor seems to be trying one last big thing: rejigging the West.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel
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Angela Merkel is leaving office soon, but you wouldn’t know it from a look into her diary. Take late June—entries included welcoming French President Emmanuel Macron to the chancellery, doing the same with Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, giving a speech to the Federation of German Industry, followed by a pow-wow with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, chairing the weekly cabinet meeting, facing parliament in a German version of “Prime Minister’s Questions,” meeting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, then taking the plane to Brussels for two days of a rumbustious EU summit where her last-minute idea of dangling the prospect of a return to EU-Russia summit talks in front of President Vladimir Putin’s nose was shot down.

While others in her government may be taking a breather—there is an election campaign ahead of many of them which will be starting in earnest in early August—the chancellor, an exponent of the Protestant work ethic if there ever was one, demonstrates her customary sense of duty. And while it may look on the surface as if the chancellor of 16 years is simply doing what she has always done—solving whatever immediate problem presents itself in a pragmatic and sensible way—she seems to be aiming rather high on her way out: nothing less than leaving a West somewhat rejigged, with an EU that a least has the chance to become a more consequential force in world affairs.

Showing a Cold Shoulder

Many in Berlin and elsewhere, including this columnist, have taken Merkel to task for her distinctly lukewarm welcome of the administration of US President Joe Biden. How could a committed transatlanticist like Merkel not rejoice more vocally and embrace more openly an America that “was back”? Part of the answer seems to be: Because the United States went away in the first place. The Biden administration's failure to consult with allies before the announcement of the withdrawl from Afghanistan and its vaccine policy are also likely to have played a role.

Merkel is known for reading shifts a little late occasionally. When the Berlin Wall came down, she was at first an observer—a physicist who had chosen a career in science because the ruling Communists were able to insist on their own rosy socialist reality in most spheres, but “could not suspend the laws of gravity.” She came to power in 2005 after almost losing the election because her original platform was full of neoliberal mainstays like flat taxes, when voters had already moved on.

Her U-turn on nuclear energy was a similar affair. She tried to nix the end of atomic energy production in Germany that her predecessor Gerhard Schröder with his Green coalition partners had engineered, but when the Fukushima nuclear energy disaster struck in far-away Japan in 2011, Merkel used the opportunity to get in sync again with German society at large (but, lamentably, at the expense of European unity), launching the “Energiewende” to gear Germany toward clean energy production. Ten years on and after much slow-going, the Energiewende now needs another turbo boost if climate goals are to be met.

Going Multi-Polar

In a similar vein, much of the talk of the emerging “multi-polar” world left Merkel unimpressed for a long time. With Washington continuing its role as Europe’s ultimate security provider, she and her governments felt free to trailblaze special economic relations with Russia—dampened after the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, but the controversial and ill-advised Nord Stream 2 pipeline project was left in place—and particularly China, again at the expense of European unity. Thinking about poles, or geostrategic and geo-economic dynamics, and about creating dangerous dependencies, was for later.

Four years of President Donald Trump, however, and pronounced fears among Germany’s elite about whether the United States will manage to sort out what some describe as “immense problems” at home, Merkel finally seems to have made up her mind that change is needed. At the very least, Europe and Germany need to have a “Plan B” in place should the Americans re-elect either Trump or a Trumpian figure in three years’ time, who could then go on to end seven decades of US foreign policy for good. This means a West that will in future be more based on shared interests, rather than values, and a Europe that closely cooperates, or even aligns itself with Washington wherever it makes sense to do so, while steadily enlarging the space of what the EU can do on its own if necessary.

Merkel now seems to be aiming firmly at creating European strategic autonomy–another silent victory for Macron, who, at the end of the chancellor’s long term, can take satisfaction from the fact that Europe’s great stateswoman, after blocking him for years, is now moving firmly in his direction, and at speed.

No Quick Wins

Thanks to the irritableness of President Xi Jinping’s China and by simply relying on her persuasiveness on Russia, Merkel has failed so far. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) between the EU and China, that the German chancellor pushed through at the end last year against the wishes of the incoming Biden administration, is on ice after Beijing sanctioned members of the European Parliament, the very body needed to ratify the agreement. And her last-minute move on Russia was blocked by the Balts and Dutch in particular, who not only, with much justification, felt passed over, but also saw an offer of talks at the highest level as rewarding Putin for his recent poor behavior and insisted on only agreeing to a strengthened list of countermeasures the EU will take against Russia.

Merkel, however, has remained unrepentant. The EU summit made “an important first step,” she insisted on June 28, as Brussels would now be looking into possible formats for an EU-Russia dialogue. “Those won’t be friendship talks—they are not a sign that our relationship is good.” Rather, the chancellor implied, this was all about setting the EU up to discuss, and possibly shape, relations with the other “poles” in world affairs, including Russia.

In mid-July, Merkel plans to put another puzzle piece of a rejigged West in place. Visiting Biden at the White House, the chancellor will try to solve Nord Stream 2—probably by agreeing to some form of snap-back automatism that links the operation of the pipeline with Russian good behavior. (Questions remain regarding the technical feasibility.) Until now, Merkel has shown remarkable intransigence on this subject, rejecting the threat of US sanctions as an unacceptable infringement of Germany's sovereignty to set its own energy policy.

Summit to Summit

If that irritant is removed, she would then set out to explore with the US president which of the numerous transatlantic initiatives that the recent EU-US summit established are the most promising for pursuing quickly and for locking in before the next US presidential election. After that, Merkel and Macron may well be off to Beijing (it would be the German chancellor’s 13th visit) for a meeting with Xi, before Biden, who first stalled, but now reportedly seeks a high-level meeting with his Chinese counterpart, will have its own first US-China summit.

It is a tall order, and certainly involves some hubris. But it would be in character for Merkel to leave the most ambitious steps for the end. “The moment you stand out in the open is also a moment of risk,” she told the Harvard class of 2019 with a touch of fortune-cookie wisdom in her commencement speech two years ago. “Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning.”

For Merkel, nothing less than a new world order is beginning, and she wants the EU to shape it. Rather than avoiding binding her successor, as some have speculated with regard to her lukewarm transatlantic response, Merkel’s aim for her last few weeks almost seems to be the opposite: creating the template for a future West and for a European foreign policy that will withstand even far-reaching changes, particularly in the United States.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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