October 26, 2018

What Kind of Germany Does Europe Want? Preparing for the Post-Merkel era

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The recent elections in Bavaria and last year’s general election in Germany have laid bare the deep political crisis that currently envelops Germany.

The problem is not so much that there is internal disagreement over the future direction of the country and Europe; rather, there appears to be no idea what this direction might be. This is a worrying trend for Estonia, the Baltic countries, the Nordic-Baltic region and Europe at large.

Germany is an essential partner for Estonia and the region, especially when it comes to multilateral cooperation in the EU. Germany accounts for 21.3% of the EU economy and consequently affects every single country in Europe. By comparison, Estonia’s economy is 0.2% of the EU’s GDP. In addition, Germany is an important political partner for Estonia since it tends to listen to small states and shares many of Estonia’s objectives in the EU—for example, the unity of the Union, fiscal conservatism and support for free trade.

In the Baltic states, I encounter ever more frequently the argument that Germany should take up the leadership of Europe (see the recent article by Riina Kaljurand and me, “Waiting for Godot? Estonia’s Perceptions of Germany in the Baltic Sea region”). This statement is often followed by criticism of Germany’s lack of investment and commitment to defence and chancellor Merkel’s actions during the influx of refugees in 2015.

Contrary to some of my own previous writing, I have increasing reservations towards the call for more German leadership, since this fails to account for two things. Firstly, we like the idea of German leadership more than the reality of what German leadership in Europe may end up being. Standing in the north-eastern corner of Europe, Germany’s contribution to the security and defence of the continent is of primary importance to Estonia and the region. However, Germany is not going to change its foreign and security policy attitudes overnight. Assessing the current debate in Germany, it seems that the prospect of a more security-aware Germany is being pushed further into the future. For the Nordic-Baltic region, this is not to our liking. Moreover, the influx of refugees and the political crisis that subsequently emerged showed that Germany is not always the inclusive one in Europe and can also go over the heads of other member states. I believe the lesson has been learnt in Germany, but it makes one wary.

So, there is a need to ask what kind of leader we expect Germany to be? What kind of issues we do want Germany to lead on, and which not? How do we respond and act if we do not like what Germany does? How much leverage and what types of influence do we have in the corridors of the Auswärtiges Amt, the Bundesministerium der Verteidigung or the Kanzleramt?

Secondly, I think the call for German leadership is based on the premise that chancellor Merkel is there to stay. It is, simply, hard to imagine Germany without her. But following the recent elections, it is clear that Merkel’s current (fourth) term will be her last. Some are not even sure she will serve out her term.

Europe, including the Nordic-Baltic region, is used to Merkel’s Germany—one that listens to small states, promotes inclusivity in the decision-making process and values European unity; a Germany that is pragmatic and cares about Europe as a whole. However, it is not certain that this will continue. It is hard to say who is going to be the new leader in Germany and what the country is going to look like. Moreover, after the election turmoil last week and last year, it is even harder to predict. The political centre is shrinking, and the fringes of the political spectrum are outshining the election results. The same is happening in the US, the UK and many other democracies.

I am not trying to make a case against Germany or its leadership. However, I would like to call for reflection about the wishes, limits and diplomatic networks of Estonia, the Nordic-Baltic region and Europe at large. If Germany has been a puzzle for us so far—What is up with its policy on Russia? What is its vision for Europe? Why doesn’t Germany wake up to the increasingly geopolitical world?—then it is likely that the future will get even more puzzling. And puzzlement is not a good basis for leadership.