There is a word on everyone’s lips in Berlin’s political and think tank world right now: Zeitenwende. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz used the term meaning “a turning point in history” or “change of an era” in his extraordinary speech to the Bundestag on February 27. Three days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had started his attack on Ukraine, which was supposed to be a blitzkrieg but has since turned into a war of annihilation against Ukrainian civilians.
“Putin’s war marks a turning point,” the chancellor said, “and that goes for our foreign policy, too.”
One month on, however, some doubt has returned, and not only to this columnist, as to how far Germany’s Zeitenwende will actually go and how consequential it will really turn out to be. Certainly, declaring a historic turn is much easier than implementing it in all its complexity and multifacetedness. There is no one single switch to flick that will make the country shed its “let’s shield ourselves and keep out of it” instincts overnight.
So far Berlin has preferred to stay in a “peace mode” rather than switching to a “war mode.” Putin may have declared war on liberal democracy and “the West” years ago and is now acting it out in Ukraine in unimaginably brutal fashion, but many Germans still refuse to accept that Russia’s president, who is moving his country deeper and deeper along the totalitarian path, really means them, too. Taking the fight to the enemy? Well, up to a point. The Scholz government continues to prefer to err on the side of caution.
Playing Politics, Again
Doubts start to set in, for instance, when it comes to the headline-grabbing announcement of Scholz’ speech, the jump in defense spending the Scholz government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) is now committed to. Germany will be meeting and surpassing the NATO goal of spending 2-percent of GDP on defense, Scholz promised, which would mean defense budgets of over €70 billion annually—a jump of over 40 percent. However, the budget plans Finance Minister and FDP leader Christian Lindner presented in March only foresee an increase of roughly 7 percent, to something just shy of €50 billion.
The rest is supposed to come from a Sondervermögen Bundeswehr, a special fund of €100 billion used to “top up” the spending to be enshrined in the constitution to balance it out with another constitutional requirement, the so-called “debt brake,” which is scheduled to re-apply again next year, following a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and which puts a ceiling on new debt of 0.35 percent of GDP.
For the “Sondervermögen,” Scholz needs the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Their new leader, Friedrich Merz, who had earlier promised a constructive role when it came to addressing Putin’s war, announced last week that the center-right’s support would be qualified. One of his provisos: He would only allow the exact number of his MPs to vote with the government to achieve a two-thirds majority and get the constitutional change over the line.
This is a poisoned offer since there are likely to be a couple of left-wing SPD and Greens parliamentarians unhappy with the huge investment in Germany’s armed forces. Presented with a chance to act like a statesman and in the national interest, Merz opted to play provincial politics for party political gain. It is a strange move for someone who still hopes to be more than a transitional figure.
Raising Their Game?
Playing politics with the Bundeswehr is an old habit that is seemingly hard to break and speaks of Germany’s unimpaired enthusiasm for going round in circles. And it is only one indication that the Zeitenwende may prove hard going. Another is the way the Scholz government has approached Putin’s war against Ukraine itself. Yes, Berlin is delivering weapons now, but with an estimated worth of €37 million it is only a fraction of the €220 million Estonia (population 1.3 million to Germany’s 83 million) has sent and only a tenth of the American military aid so far.
Wisely, Berlin keeps mostly shtum about the exact form and shape of the military aid it provides to Kyiv, but stories that surfaced during the past four weeks speak of allegedly empty Bundeswehr arms depots and inter-ministerial buck-passing as to who should be in the lead to help the Ukrainian armed forces getting what they need. The impression is that Germany is still far from having really raised its game.
The same goes for energy sanctions against Russia, which the United States has partly enacted (on oil), the Baltic states, Poland, and other fellow European Union member states have demanded, and Germany, together with Italy, Hungary, and others, have fiercely resisted (on Germany’s energy dependence on Russia see also the Carbon Critical column in this issue) even though a number of high-profile German politicians and think tankers have strongly appealed to the government to reconsider and a number of German economists have argued that it would be possible to navigate the economic blowback.
While the hyperbole of some government members arguing against an embargo always rang false—Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock explained that “the lights would go out” in Germany should the country cut itself off Russian gas—the government’s counterarguments have some merit: Europe may be pushed into recession, energy prices would shoot up further and compensate Putin for his losses.
But even though Berlin is sincere in its push to wean itself off the energy dependency on Russia— Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck announced that oil and coal imports would end later this year, and gas imports by mid-2024—the focus seems still firmly on “What does it do to us (economically)?” rather than a more strategic, less self-centered “How do we stop the war?” In this and most other instances, Berlin is content with staying behind the curve, “managing” the situation rather than trying to shape it.
This does this not bode particularly well for what was supposed a promising “window of opportunity” for bold moves enhancing “European sovereignty” (the declared aim of the Scholz government) after the French presidential elections in April, which incumbent Emmanuel Macron is well-placed to win. When this window will actually open is still debated, since Macron will also need to also win the parliamentary election in June. However, by early fall the EU may have found itself united by Putin’s war like never before and, with highly like-minded governments in place in both Paris and Berlin, it could opt to move forward boldly.
But are the Germans there yet? While there was much talk about the Greens having European policy cornered, Habeck followed his quest for energy independence from Russia mostly as a national endeavor; European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who proposed a gas union last week by purchasing gas collectively (as Europe did with COVID-19 vaccines), has got short shrift so far from Germany—ironic given that Berlin’s national pursuit of looking after its energy security for the past two decades has backfired so spectacularly. Baerbock also seemed focused on the aim of formulating Germany’s much-vaunted national security strategy with ideas on how to advance the EU in practical terms more of a second-order question.
This may be a bit unfair to a government that is only in office a little over 100 days. But on key questions there isn’t a sense that the Scholz government is even thinking about putting all switches on “go.” A reform of European fiscal rules will likely come, but will not go beyond an acceptance of current realities. To allow the EU, after the “one-off” (so says Germany’s coalition agreement, on the insistence of the FDP) NextGeneration EU post-COVID-19 recovery fund, to have another go at borrowing collectively on international markets for a French-proposed “resilience fund” is considered doable by some in the SPD, but it won't be easy.
“We will not only have to persuade our FDP, but also the Dutch, Austrians, Finns, Danish and so on,” says SPD European affairs spokesperson Christian Petry. He believes that there is a majority within the SPD for turning the communalization of new European debt—or the issuance of Eurobonds — into a permanent EU instrument. Others are less sure. At present, however, the SPD, and the Scholz government as a whole, is clearly some distance from having a view, let alone a strategy.
Some integrational steps will come almost by default. The EU Strategic Compass, launched on March 21, has a number of in-built deliverables, including the set-up of a 5,000 strong intervention force by 2024 for which Germany has promised to provide the nucleus. There is also an obvious need to put the countries of the West Balkans, subject to continuous Russian destabilization efforts, as well as Ukraine on a clear “membership path.”
In short, confronting Putin’s Russia to make it stop its violent attempt at subjugating a neighbor and destroying Europe’s post-Cold War order as well as strengthening the EU will require a completely new Zeitenwende mindset. One month into the new era, it is clear that Germany’s political leaders, and the country at large, have to put their feet on the accelerator to make sure that this becomes a full turn rather than an evasive movement.
Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.