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When will Germany get off its knees? Just when the country needs to show resolve, Merkel is being startlingly naive

European countries must hang together or they will hang separately. Photo: FRANCOIS MORI/AFP via Getty Images

European countries must hang together or they will hang separately. Photo: FRANCOIS MORI/AFP via Getty Images


July 6, 2020   7 mins

It’s a¬†a make-or-break moment for the EU. Battered by Covid, with fraying ties to the United States and torn over its relationship with a growingly assertive China, the European Union has once again shown itself far weaker than the sum of its parts. For decades, it had seen itself as a normative power, whose mission civilisatrice was to guide the rest of the world, still trapped in history, to Europe‚Äôs post-historical idyll.

‚ÄúWe assumed that multilateralism, openness, and reciprocity comprised the best model not only for our continent but also for the wider world,‚ÄĚ the EU‚ÄĚs foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote recently, but those illusions are long gone. ‚ÄúTo avoid being the losers in today‚Äôs US-China competition,‚ÄĚ he asserted, ‚Äúwe must relearn the language of power and conceive of Europe as a top-tier geostrategic actor.‚ÄĚ

Last week,¬†Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the EU Council.¬†Its politicians have already embraced the new language of sovereignty. European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen last year pledged to lead a ‚Äúgeopolitical commission‚ÄĚ, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany‚Äôs defence minister and Angela Merkel‚Äôs hapless, erstwhile successor, remarked to the Munich Security Conference that ‚ÄúEurope and especially my country have a duty to become more able and more willing to act. Because we Germans and Europeans are faced with a strategic situation that is increasingly dominated by great power competition.‚ÄĚ

Confronted by a rapidly shifting global order, the EU will have to adapt to the new realities simply to survive, radically reshaping its institutions, in the words of Germany‚Äôs Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, just to ‚Äúkeep Europe functioning in a world in which the global balance is shifting rapidly ‚ÄĒ away from Europe‚ÄĚ.

The recent Franco-German proposal for a shared European debt mechanism to aid the bloc‚Äôs economic recovery from Covid has been hailed by some as the EU‚Äôs ‚ÄúHamiltonian moment‚ÄĚ, after the process by which the United States evolved from a loose collection of autonomous states into a truly federal power. But the comparison only highlights the fragility of European solidarity, with even this modest proposal meeting stiff resistance from the fiscally frugal alliance of Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark.

In reshaping foreign policy, the challenges are even greater, with perhaps the greatest stumbling block to a coherent European strategy being Germany itself. The economic giant’s lucrative trading relationships with external rivals act as a brake on any serious strategic action, with Germany essentially having no foreign policy to speak of, and the geopolitical needs of the continent as a whole subordinate to the demands of German industry. 

In the realm of defence, crucial to any meaningful strategic autonomy, Germany has long shirked its spending responsibilities, allowing its armed forces to atrophy to the point of uselessness. Indeed, Germany’s prevailing ethos of post-historical utopianism has seen the country’s military viewed with such social disfavour, it has become a hub for political radicalism, with Kramp-Karrenbauer being forced to disband one-quarter of the KSK special forces, the equivalent of the SAS, last week for neo-Nazi sympathies. An economic giant, Germany is a strategic dwarf whose inability and unwillingness to project hard power gravely diminishes Europe’s ability to shape its own destiny.

For all that German politicians rebuke Europe’s illiberal challengers as a threat to the bloc’s security, trade-focused Germany has enmeshed itself inextricably with the EU’s greatest rivals. Macron’s outreach to Russia as a potential European security partner in a world defined by the coming struggle between the United States and China has been met with gasps of horror from Germany’s Atlanticist think tank class, but by doubling down on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia against bipartisan American disapproval, Germany has made itself and Europe as a whole heavily dependent on Putin’s goodwill.

With the US threatening sanctions if the pipeline goes ahead, Germany is pushing for Europe-wide counter-sanctions, in a familiar example of the continent‚Äôs ‚Äúself-interested hegemon‚ÄĚ attempting to utilise the EU as leverage for solely German interests. In a recent interview, Merkel struck a markedly ambivalent tone on Russia, chiding Putin for interfering in European politics, while making the case for cooperation. ‚ÄúThere are good reasons to keep engaging in constructive dialogue with Russia,‚ÄĚ Merkel argued, ‚ÄúIn countries like Syria and Libya, countries in Europe‚Äôs immediate neighbourhood, Russia‚Äôs strategic influence is great. I will therefore continue to strive for cooperation.‚ÄĚ

This is a small victory for Macron, who appears to view Russia as potentially useful additional muscle for Europe in a world of great power competition, but will perturb the Baltic states and Poland, who view the assertiveness of their former imperial master with alarm. Trump‚Äôs announcement that he will draw down the American troop deployment in Germany and increase the US military presence in Poland can be read as a rebuke to what he has called a ‚Äúdelinquent‚ÄĚ Germany, and there is no reason to believe America‚Äôs displeasure will be lessened under a Biden administration.

Interestingly, a recent paper from a think tank aligned with Germany‚Äôs centre-left SPD party, coalition allies with Merkel‚Äôs CDU, endorses Macron‚Äôs policy of European strategic autonomy from the United States, urging German support for an independent European ‚Äúnuclear umbrella‚ÄĚ under French control, and enhanced security dialogue with Russia. Though not citing Poland and the Baltic states by name, it also waves away their fears of Russian encroachment, arguing that European policymakers ‚Äúmust ask themselves for how long and to what extent our future will continue to be dictated by the history of national suffering‚ÄĚ, and dismissively remarking that ‚Äúhistory plays an important part in politics and society, but it should not serve as a veto in solution-oriented policies‚ÄĚ.

While a reset of relations with Russia is a rare example of shared Franco-German geopolitical interests, it will likely be a wedge issue with Germany’s increasingly self-confident eastern EU neighbours, allowing the US to play European countries against each other, and diminishing the possibility of concerted strategic action.

A more immediate challenge to coherent European strategic action comes from Turkey, an illiberal challenger to Europe’s collective sovereignty, deeply intertwined with Germany both demographically and economically. France’s dispute with Erdogan over Turkey’s arms shipments to Libya, encroachment in Greek and Cypriot waters and malign role in Syria is rapidly escalating. Last week, France withdrew from joint NATO naval operations in the Mediterranean in protest, and French foreign minister Yves Le Drian is convening a special EU summit to address the Turkey question, threatening sanctions in retaliation.

Austria will likely support the French moves, especially after being forced to summon Turkey‚Äôs ambassador for a dressing down last week after the Turkish foreign ministry condemned Austrian police for dispersing a mob of Turkish ultranationalists attempting to burn down a Kurdish community centre in the centre of Vienna. ‚ÄúI know exactly what Turkey is trying to do here, namely to use the Turks in Europe to sow strife and to campaign above all for Turkey’s own interests,‚ÄĚ Austria‚Äôs chancellor Kurz has stated, demanding that ‚Äúthere must be an end to Turkey’s attempts to influence the people here in Austria and instrumentalising them for their conflicts.”¬†

The largest party grouping in the European Parliament, the conservative EPP, has similarly run out of patience with Turkey, with its leader Manfred Weber, a member of the Bavarian CSU sister party to Merkel‚Äôs CDU, demanding a debate on Turkey and claiming that ‚ÄúTurkey is unilaterally escalating conflicts with Europe and the situation is getting worse. Turkish security forces attack the Greek border on a regular basis and the drilling attempts in the waters of Cyprus are intensifying continuously,‚ÄĚ and insisting that ‚Äúthe EU cannot leave these aggressions unanswered‚ÄĚ.¬†

Yet the greatest stumbling block to concerted European action against Turkey will be Germany itself. To French and Greek dissatisfaction, the German security establishment consistently shies away from confronting Erdogan, with Germany raking in huge profits from arming Turkey with the high-tech weapons of war used against both European interests in the region and the borders of the EU itself.

Railing against the German defence industry‚Äôs lucrative deals with Turkey, Cyprus‚Äô president Nicos Anastasiades demanded action from Merkel last week, asking ‚Äúhas Germany ever pondered on what it is breeding? Are the financial interests enough to justify disregarding consequences that may damage an important number of European countries?‚ÄĚ But it is difficult to see Merkel‚Äôs Germany, perennially shrinking from confrontation, supporting the French initiative. With Turkey as with Russia, Germany‚Äôs high-minded rhetoric on European sovereignty will be undercut by Merkel‚Äôs desire to keep the lucrative deals rolling in.

Perhaps the most pressing opportunity for Europe to demonstrate its sovereignty comes from the unbalanced relationship with China. This was meant to be the agenda-setting year for this crucial issue, until Covid upturned the world order. Hopes that a China-EU trade deal would be finally signed this year, replacing the unbalanced economic relationship with a level playing field for European exporters, have been dashed by intransigent Chinese delaying tactics, with Beijing cancelling the September Leipzig summit until further notice.

Merkel‚Äôs long-standing illusions of ‚Äúchange through trade‚ÄĚ have evaporated, replaced by a clearer understanding that the Middle Kingdom‚Äôs rebirth as a great power represents a systemic challenge to Europe‚Äôs sovereignty. Similarly, the risks of over-dependence on supply chains trailing back to China have been revealed by Covid, with ‚Äúhealth sovereignty‚ÄĚ emerging as a major priority for EU action.¬†

By proceeding with Huawei’s central role in rolling out Germany’s 5G network against both American threats and the advice of the German security services, Merkel’s government displayed a startling naivety on China, only now being reassessed. Belatedly realising that the new Cold War playing out inside its citizens’ smartphones will challenge Europe far more than a contest for the distant islets of the South China Sea, the EU is placing new emphasis on cyber security, an area in which joint and concerted action will likely bear successful fruit. 

On human rights, Germany‚Äôs equivocal stance, gently rebuking the awakening giant for its¬† abuses while deepening Germany‚Äôs economic and strategic dependence on its systemic rival, is coming under greater domestic pressure. Merkel will be forced to defend her China policy before the Bundestag this autumn, with the increasingly important German Greens emerging as unexpected China hawks, lambasting Huawei as a ‚ÄúTrojan horse‚ÄĚ for the Chinese Communist Party and pushing for sanctions against individuals linked to repression of the country‚Äôs Uighur minority.

Initially weak EU statements against China‚Äôs actions in Hong Kong are slowly evolving into more assertively condemnatory language, but Merkel herself remains committed to striking a note of caution, remarking blandly in a recent interview that ‚ÄúChina has become a global player. That makes us partners in economic cooperation and combating climate change, but also competitors with very different political systems. Not to talk to each other would certainly be a bad idea.‚ÄĚ

A hangover from a vanished age of multilateral cooperation through trade rather than multipolar competition through foreign policy, Merkel’s natural caution will likely dampen any meaningful action towards reshaping the EU into a major geopolitical player. In the dying days of her generation-long role as Europe’s most powerful politician, Merkel will likely leave dramatic action to her successor, whoever that will be, with the potential heirs to her throne already vying to establish themselves as serious strategic thinkers on the European plane. For the continental bloc to survive the coming era of great power competition, concerted action to reshape the union into a strategic actor will need to happen soon.

While Germany wishes to extend its holiday from history for as long as possible, Russia and Turkey are already spreading their beach towels across the Mediterranean’s most desirable real estate, and the romance with China is already turning sour. This may be the EU’s Hamilton moment, but with Germany at the reins, it is one without a Hamilton to rise to the occasion.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago

A long article and much to comment on …

1. The whole tone of the first half of the article is that big = best. The EU must combine to face off the threat from … etc I don’t agree. What’s the point of being big if you are not best. Smaller nation states can be more prosperous and happier – that is why people in the UK voted to leave the EU.
2. Germany is not happy to sanction the Turks – I wonder if that is anything to do with the 3m Turks now living pemanently in Germany? Another Trojan Horse at work.
3. Again UnHerd have used a negaitive photo of Trump – seemingly left out in the cold. And has Macron got his hand on Merkel’s knee? I’m alright with that if she is, but what would everyone be saying if Trump had been doing it?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

Apparently two Austrian ministers are currently under armed guard owing to death threats from the Turkish Grey Wolves organisation. This gives you a good idea of Turkey’s plans for Europe,

Jo Jones
Jo Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

Further to your second point, aren’t there currently millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, funded by the EU? What happens to those people when/if the EU either reduces or stops the funding. Correct me if I’m mistaken, please, thanks!

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago
Reply to  Jo Jones

You are not mistaken and we can only hope they go back to Syria and rebuild the country and culture.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

Zero chance of that! As soon as they can afford a pair of water wings they will be heading for the English Channel!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

Spot on about that extraordinary photo.Macron is definitely attempting a bit of ‘hanky panky’ and Mr Trump has spotted it and is looking on with stern disapproval.

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

But this makes no sense
For at least 4 to 40 years we have been told that the EU is fantastic, it’s nations are striving together in a unified project to became a super state where every one agrees and the world loves it.
Is this not true?
Are there divisions in the EU?
Who would have thought that we may have been told untruths and have misrepresentations about the EU by the remoaners in this country?
The EU the world’s happiest theme park!

John Nutkins
John Nutkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Good post.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Too obvious a ‘wind up’, but a good try!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

The EU as a global player? That’s a laugh. Just last week an EU ambassador or some such was kicked out of Venezuela. Nobody wants them,

The EU won’t even be a player in Europe, which will gradually be carved up by China, Russia and Turkey. This is because Europe is bankrupt and Brussels is a ship of fools.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Aris – please please tone down your articles. They are well-researched, interesting and informative, but are plastered with hyperbole and absolutist assertions.

It might work the first time someone reads your work but after the 4th or 5th time it loses it’s effect and adds an unnecessary immature student-politics feel to the piece.

One minor example – minor actually being the best measure as it’s completely unneccesary:

Merkel struck a markedly ambivalent tone on Russia, chiding Putin for interfering in European politics, while making the case for cooperation

This has nearly always been the case with Merkel and her attitude to Russia as I am sure you well know – and is just generally how diplomacy is conducted. A simple search for “Merkel Russia 2016” brings up this as first article: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/

Guess what? Merkel criticising Russia (for hacking) but leaving road open for Nord 2 gas pipeline negotiations. So the overexcited doom-monger tone above looks a bit silly. As if Germany had markedly changed its stance and that waste and ruin lies round the corner.

There are too many examples to go through this article one by one but that is an atypical example of this needless over exaggeration.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I agree. The writer is out to startle, to make an extreme case. I take all his articles with a large pinch of salt.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I think Aris has been told to spice things up to feed the pond life with click-bait. Forgive.

Bill Gaffney
Bill Gaffney
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I suspect Aris is biased.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I’ve mentioned before about the immaturity of this self proclaimed ‘war’ correspondent. His lazy tutors must hold some responsibility either that or somebody take his comics of him and tell him to find a job. Come on Unheard editors your better than this send him on his bike and give the space to grown up’s.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I really enjoy his style and how he is able to bring together disparate geopolitical currents into a coherent feeling based story. I think he captures the different personalities very well which is what diplomacy is all about.

If you question his line of reasoning just say so and explain why.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

I gave one clear example above – of an over exaggeration about how Germany has suddenly changed its stance now when actually looking back to 2016 you can see the same treatment and policy.

This is not really the format to dissect the passage above, as you would need to annotate, but the whole passage is information interspersed with suggestive language and assertions that hold no water. Furthermore the language used is exceptionally hyperbolic.

Take the final passage, very typical of his style. All very grand and prophetic and evocative – but little of actual substance as what does Turkey and Russia spreading its beach towels across the Mediterranean really mean? Style and no substance and a wild assertion to boot.

It ends up looking stupid as nothing whatsoever as extreme will come to pass. But doesn’t matter, next week there’ll be an article on how America is a failed state (actual article by Aris) or the like.

His style would not pass muster at undergraduate level, and in any diplomatic/military circles would be dismissed straight off the bat for inability to present fact objectively.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

a coherent feeling based story

I think that sums it up – I think we’ll agree to disagree. I prefer opinion pieces to be informative and accurate – able to stand up on their own merit and arguments. Not a creative reflection or interpretation of what the current mood is.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
3 years ago

Considering that “we” imposed not one but two Carthaginian peaces on Germany in the last century it’s not surprising that Germany just wants to hide.

Yet the Germans invented everything from modern philosophy to modern physics.

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago

Yes, it’s hard to argue with that. Here’s a German joke told I think by Henning Wehn.

A little boy was born in Germany but as he grew up he did not speak. His parents got increasingly concerned but all the medics pronounced the boy healthy. Then one day when the boy was about 11, he opened his mouth and said “this ham is a little too warm”. His parents were amazed and delighted and asked why he had not spoken before. He replied “Well, up to now, everything has been quite satisfactory”.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

There is also, “One German, a splendid chap, two Germans a Bund, three Germans a War”¬Ě.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Along with Zyclon B and Auschwitz! Frankly the Philosophy added little to Socrates, Platoand Aristotle, whilst the Physics owed much to those geniuses, Newton, Boyle Pascal, Hale & Co.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

The tiny section on Huawei alludes to the gaping hole in this analysis: technology. The power struggle between the US and China is, ultimately a tech War. Pretty much all the values based stuff is an irrelevance when it comes to deciding who eventually emerges on top, the *only* thing that matters is Tech Supremacy.

And the question is why, with the stunning levels of intellectual firepower patently available across Europe, it is nevertheless now falling behind on tech, notwithstanding tech hotspots in the UK in London, Cambridge etc. A symptom of which is: no global tech giants originating from all of Europe. A disastrous consequence of which is: no one in Europe owns any of the tech the global tech giants depend on. Flipping that, *all* of European national and corporate life is *totally* dependent on US, and to a lesser extent far-eastern created tech.

And on the European naiviest focus on values rather than cold, hard power, I have seen many authors claiming recently that as a European “third force” counterweight to the US and China cold war, the EU can ‘Lead’ in the Green agenda, and in Tech Regulation, etc. ‘Leading’ in Green or Regulation is not a thing. It’s like leading in sainthood or leading on a jog to the park – meaningless nonsense. Both are aspects of the social models you implement, not a competition between powers. And the idea that the EU can influence anyone, much less the US or Chinese models of Tech Regulation is laughable, and the idea that values based agendas can help you win a Tech War is bonkers.

This is very, very simple. To win a Tech War, you need superior tech, for which you need incentivised tech ecosystems in place that will allow that tech to emerge. That’s it. That is what the European nations need to focus on. The rest of the stuff, including mediating, while also competing, while also triangulating, between the US and China, is hot air. So, park all the values based ivory tower idealistic stuff, it’s garbage. Seriously.

Cave Artist
Cave Artist
3 years ago

Well that’s about right. While Germany’s foreign policy and diplomatic incompetence is at least 100 years old, their deliberate infantilism, as displayed by its military policy is new. Don’t attack us we’re only a business. A sort of bigger Switzerland. Well the Russians and the Chinese aren’t buying it.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

“An economic giant, Germany is a strategic dwarf”¬Ě, a perfect description of the dilemma facing Europe today. Well done Mr Roussinos.

I was however surprised by no mention of the
Emissions scandal both in car industry and marine engines. Nor anything about the recent Wirecard debacle. Their toading up to both the Chinese and Turks has been a truly revolting spectacle.

Frankly it time to admit that Europe is a “busted flush”¬Ě We are facing an imminent war with China for Global supremacy, and we should all throw in our lot with the almost certain winner, the USA.

Germany, renowned for its military prowess for centuries, may have an important part to play, but also a chance to atone for previous blunders.

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago

“Has Germany ever pondered on what it is breeding? Are the financial interests enough to justify disregarding consequences that may damage an important number of European countries?”¬Ě – Obviously not, but making lots of money preparing the destruction of Europe is definitely encouraged, and not just in Germany. It’s criminally insane.
It might help if Germany didn’t have women running the defense department. China must find it easy to deal with these idiots.