Sidelined Germany's Incredibly Shrinking Role on the World Stage

Gregor Fischer / DPA

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Part 2: Macron Is Well Aware of Germany's Contraints


The French president says that the EU has always been the result of ambitions pursued by "crazy people." In his speech on Tuesday, Macron didn't dedicate a single word to the Franco-Germanic partnership, "deliberately," as he would later say when a member of parliament asked him about it. Macron is aware of the German chancellor's constraints. He knows that there are plenty of members of parliament from the CDU and the CSU who fear nothing more than the idea that Germany might invest a few billion euros more each year in the European community than it does now. As a result, he has been trimming his public statements down to Merkel's size for some time now.

In Strasbourg, for example, he spoke only of a "road map to enable us to advance step by step on banking union and establish a budgetary capacity to promote stability and convergence in the euro area." It almost sounded like something Merkel would say.

Merkel and German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz have taken note with no shortage of gratification. There have already been several occasions when the two of them have sat together in the Chancellery considering how to respond to Macron. Both are determined to present a plan for the future together with the French president at the EU summit in June. The question, though, is what it will include.

After all, both are extremely critical of some of the French president's proposals and are skeptical that Macron's idea of installing a European finance minister is a good idea. They also aren't particularly fond of his proposal to establish a special budget for the eurozone to compensate for economic fluctuations within the currency area.

But the greatest conflict is the one over the future of the eurozone. One compromise would be to upgrade the European Stability Mechanism, the euro bailout fund, to become a kind of European Monetary Fund. The political calculation on the part of the German Chancellery and the Finance Ministry in Berlin is that the body could establish itself as an early warning system for public finances within the eurozone. It could also play a more important role in bank bailouts, as Macron has in mind.

Balancing Act

Merkel is facing a balancing act. She has to prevent a situation in which Macron loses either face or his patience. At the same time, she has to consider the resistance within her own ranks. Many conservative parliamentarians in Berlin view the French president's activities with suspicion.

"I see absolutely no reason why I should make Macron's personal sense of happiness my political program," says Alexander Dobrindt, who heads the CSU party group in parliament. The CSU, which shares power with the CDU at the national level, has always struggled with Merkel's EU policies, but in recent years, CSU party head Horst Seehofer has largely allowed the chancellor to do as she pleases on that front.

With Seehofer having now ceded much of his power in the CSU to Markus Söder, the party has become noticeably more obstinate on EU reform policy and will certainly not agree to anything that could jeopardize its position heading into Bavarian state elections in October.

Nor can Merkel rely entirely on parliamentarians from her own CDU. A recent European policy paper by deputy party whips Brinkhaus and Leikert may have been put forward as a mere position paper, but the reality is that it also contained a hidden threat to the chancellor.

The paper makes a specific reference to Article 23, Paragraph 3 of the German constitution that notes that parliament must be allowed to state its position in any negotiations with the EU. That may sound technical, but in practice it has enormous consequences because it ties the government's hands in negotiations, preventing it from simply defying the guidelines set by parliament. The fact that parliamentarians from the chancellor's own party are threatening such a thing is rather unusual. Even if no decisions were made in the end, it still sent a clear message. "In addition to the party base, the parliamentary group has now also made clear that it is not willing to simply accept the government's policies," says one senior member of the parliamentary group.

How, though, is a chancellor who is facing such deep doubts from within her own party supposed to place an active role in charting Europe's future course? Even if Merkel had ideas, it's quite possible that she wouldn't be able to implement them now.

During her time as chancellor, Merkel has worked together with four French presidents. There was Jacques Chirac, with his machismo charm, the hyper-nervous Nicolas Sarkozy and then the misfortunate François Hollande. Ultimately, none of them proved to be a match for her. But now, Macron seems to be exactly that. He fills in every void that she leaves open.

An Antithesis and Ally

Macron recognized early on the potential created by Donald Trump's presidency -- above all for himself. The French president has succeeded in positioning himself to appear as both the U.S. president's antithesis and a his closest ally.

He shook Trump's hand so long at the G-7 summit that his knuckles turned white. He also promptly told the world why he had done so. And Trump told a French weekly that strength is what matters most to him.

It was the start of a wonderful friendship. A short time later, Macron invited his American counterpart to celebrate Bastille Day, the French national holiday, together. The images from that July 14, 2017 event went around the world. They showed Macron embracing Trump, almost hugging him, and they dined together with their wives at a posh restaurant in the Eiffel Tower.

Trump has said that Macron is "smart" and "strong" and "he's my friend."

This week, it is Macron's turn to travel to Washington at Trump's invitation -- for the first official state visit hosted by Trump after more than a year in the White House. For three days, the two, Donald and Emmanuel, will be celebrating the Franco-American friendship.

But while Trump is rolling out the red carpet for Macron, the best the German chancellor can expect is a one-day working visit -- and that's not just because Macron is a head of state and Merkel is merely a head of government.

There can be no doubt about the fact that Trump considers Macron to be his main point of contact in Europe. There's no other leader with whom he has such a personable relationship. "We don't always agree, but we admire each other a great deal. We have a lot in common," Macron has said.

Merkel, on the other hand, has so far failed to succeed in establishing an even halfway reliable connection with Trump. As a woman, of course, the bromance route taken by Macron isn't open to her. His approach to the American president is reminiscent of the relationship former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had with Vladimir Putin: He's building up contact at the emotional and half-private level that he might be able to turn into political capital at a later date.

Merkel has never had that ability. Until recently, however, she had been considered the woman who could rein in men with outsized egos like Erdogan, Putin and Trump -- with her sharp mind, her "no bullshit" attitude and her approach of keeping emotions out of politics to the extent possible.

But emotions also play a role in global politics. Trump hasn't forgotten how Merkel lectured him while congratulating him over his election, admonishing him not to lose sight of values like democracy, freedom and human dignity. Now it's Macron who is his friend and Merkel is left looking like the school teacher.

The military strike against Assad in Syria this month also brought Trump and Macron even closer together. Macron's advisers say he telephones almost daily with Trump. "The mutual trust is great," says a diplomat who advises Macron on foreign policy.

German Absence

Trump and Macron planned the strike against the Assad regime together with British Prime Minister Theresa May, but without any German involvement whatsoever. They didn't even think to ask Germany for military support because they already suspected what the answer would be: Do it without us.

As such, Merkel's cabinet remained largely clueless about the timing and scope of the retaliatory strike that followed Assad's poison gas attack. The only reliable information channel was that between German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her U.S. counterpart James Mattis, one of the few pragmatic politicians still present in the Trump administration. Von der Leyen and Mattis call each other regularly, even in the days following Trump's threatening tweets against Russia.

Officials at Defense Ministry also have another channel of information in Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and were able to use it to get a rough idea of what the retaliatory strike might like look. And it wasn't without a certain amount of pride that the ministry passed its insider information along to the Chancellery.

Meanwhile, Trump demonstratively thanked France and Britain for participating in the military strike against Assad. It's been a long time since Germany was the subject of any praise from Trump.

Indeed, Germany's military reserve has not sat well within the White House. Richard Grenell, Trump's candidate for U.S. ambassador to Germany, tweeted after the military strike that Berlin should have participated as well. Grenell's situation is indicative of the sad state of relations right now between Germany and the U.S. Trump hasn't had an ambassador in Berlin for a year and the Democrats in the U.S. Senate are refusing to confirm his nominee.

No one in Washington understands the German position on the airstrikes in Syria -- supportive but unwilling to participate. The gap between words and deeds in German foreign policy is simply too wide. That was inherent in the contradictory statements coming out of Berlin the day after the attack by its Western allies in Syria. Chancellor Merkel said the military deployment had been "necessary and appropriate. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Maas expressed his understanding for the German military's deployment in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 to stop the murder in Kosovo. But despite estimates of up to a half-million dead in Syria, he is still unwilling to draw a direct line between the past and the present. "In this conflict, that is not the role that we, in consultation with our partners, wish to play," Maas said.

It sounded a little like the old division of labor under the mantra that one party shoots and the other mediates. But the reality is that Germany isn't really playing any role at all. German is having trouble even getting a place at the table.

After the attack in Syria, those who participated in the airstrikes have thus far been uninterested in hearing about German mediation efforts and peace initiatives. "For now, our influence has shrunk even further," says one member of Merkel's cabinet.

Plus, Chancellor Merkel and her foreign minister apparently don't agree entirely on how the political process in Syria should be structured. Maas wants to exclude the possibility of negotiations with Assad but the Chancellery is less dogmatic about the issue.

Shrinking Influence

After the Skripal case, Macron and Trump were likewise quick to establish a joint position -- and again the German government dallied when it came to punitive measures for Moscow. Definitive evidence proving Moscow is behind the attack is still lacking today. But the British government has pressured its allies to show solidarity and to tighten Russian sanctions. Macron sided with London at the time and against the Germans.

Government sources in Berlin say that Macron offered the British and the Americans tough sanctions without first discussing the matter with Merkel. He is said to have proposed closing Russian diplomatic outposts in France and also threatened to go it alone if the Germans refused.

Ultimately, Berlin had no choice but to go along. In the end, the German government moved to expel four Russian Embassy employees in order to avoid totally isolating itself.

The incident is even more telling given that Russia had long been Merkel's domain in Europe. It was during the Ukraine crisis that the chancellor chalked up her greatest foreign policy successes. Never before in postwar history has Germany played as important a foreign policy role as it did the night in Minsk in February 2015 when, at the peak of fighting in eastern Ukraine, Merkel mediated between Moscow and Kiev and prevented the war from spreading further. At the time, she had then-French President François Hollande in tow. He fell asleep at the table as Merkel moved to rescue world peace.

Merkel convinced the Americans not to deliver weapons to Ukraine and was considered the only person who had a chance of getting anywhere with Putin. Ultimately, though, the numerous telephone calls between the chancellor and the Kremlin chief only created the appearance of closeness. In fact, Merkel and Putin have never established a trusting relationship. It has been years since Putin has come to Germany for a bilateral visit. Merkel was last in Moscow in 2015 for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. A new visit is currently in the planning stages.

It's about time. After a phase of self-occupation, the country needs to kick back into gear in foreign policy terms if it doesn't want to completely cede its claim to leadership and responsibility.

Berlin Should Support Macron

Macron needs to finally be provided with answers to his proposals for the eurozone. And Berlin needs to show some support for reform -- for the European Monetary Fund, for example. This won't be possible without yielding further sovereignty to Brussels. At the same time, that doesn't necessarily have to mean that Berlin moves away from the correct principles that guided it through the euro crisis -- namely that it will only provide its financial solidarity in exchange for structural reforms.

A new effort is needed in Ukraine, and Foreign Minister Maas has already announced his plan to launch one. The country in the EU's backyard has more than 40 million citizens and threatens to become a failed state. Germany cannot leave the country in the lurch.

Most importantly, however, Germany has to answer this question: Who are we? Where do we stand in the conflict between Russia and the West? Germany is a part of the West, but it could also use its special relations with Russia in ways aimed at preventing the further escalation of the new East-West conflict.

Even if it is difficult for her, the German chancellor needs to establish better ties to Trump, and it would be correct to rebuild contacts at all levels. Macron has already demonstrated that it is possible to exercise influence on Washington. It's in Germany's interest that the United States remain in Syria in order to protect the Kurds there from Turkish aggression, but also to ensure that a Western presence remains and that the conflict is not left entirely in the hands of the Russians, Iranians and Turks.

Finally, even if it was right that Germany didn't participate in the April 13 airstrikes -- the country cannot continue to practice military abstinence in the long run. That's why it is necessary to take steps to limit the requirement of German parliamentary approval for all forms of military action. Doing so is necessary to establish the conditions that would allow Germany to participate in any rapid deployment that might be required. It would also be a prerequisite for closer military cooperation within Europe. That's a view that, incidentally, is also shared by the French president. When Macron stood at Merkel's side on Thursday during his visit to Berlin, a journalist asked him if he would like to see greater German involvement in Syria.

He said he had held intensive discussions with Merkel in the days prior to the military strike. But, he said, German participation would not have been realistic because of constitutional restraints. In a volatile situation like that, he added, you can't "wait several weeks for a parliamentary debate."

Macron might as well have said: It's time for Germany to play a more active role.

By Matthias Gebauer, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Christian Reiermann, Christoph Scheuermann and Christoph Schult

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rhess 04/23/2018
1. Wayward President?
Evidentially you are in favor of Merkel ruining Europe. You have no idea what your children are in for.
Lluis Gelabert 04/23/2018
2. Macron vs Merkel
Leave to Macron the pomp, as you say, and to Merkel the underground work. If both endeavors go in the same direction, then the result will be ok for Europe, which is what really counts.
shripad.deo 04/23/2018
3. Merkel and sidelined
I think Germany is lucky to be out of the madness that has wrapped the countries mentioned. Macron will realize the faster he rises with the American president, the faster he will be distanced as soon as his utility is over. As for Britain; It is so divided within and obsessed with 'special relationship', that it will do whatever necessary to stay in the afterglow of the U.S.
CA_MAN 04/23/2018
4. Right
It would seem that, from my American perspective, Germany wants to merely trade with the world but not go much beyond that. But we need our friends to help out more. Germany can and should spend more on their defense. We need reliable allies that help share the burden around the world. And yes, it is our place to do what we can. Not intervene everywhere all the time. But we must stand up for liberal principals. Especially against the Russians and their cronies. C'mon German, do your part.
SpainToday01 04/24/2018
5. Wayward president?
Beginning an article with a cheapshot at the American President and outright lying to your readership is not professional rigor. The world is not a more dangerous place - in fact, if it weren't for some leadership on the part of President Trump, Europe would now be ransacked by members of ISIS on every street corner - especially Germany. Keep your political leanings and judgements aside and try to stick to journalism. Danka!
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