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Germany’s Changing Role in Europe

An Altamar podcast with

Germany is wrestling with multiple new realities. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is overturning foreign and domestic policy pillars. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is facing an energy crisis and a difficult governing coalition at home, while being criticized by the U.S. and other EU members for not doing enough to help Ukraine. 

The Altamar team of Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen spoke to Liana Fix, fellow for Europe at the Council of Foreign Relations, to discuss how the Russia-Ukraine conflict will change Germany.

The team asked Fix to break down the different tensions facing German leadership. “Chancellor Scholz is, for the first time in Germany’s history, in a three-party coalition. So, he has two other parties, the Greens and the Liberals. He has to coordinate with [them] for foreign policy and also domestic policy, and that’s not always easy. Germany on the domestic level has a huge energy crisis at the moment because of a self-inflicted dependence on Russian gas in the past decade.” 

At the European level, there is also a lot of pressure on Germany. Fix said, “Europe needs to show solidarity among its members when it comes to energy, but also when it comes to defense. Poland and the Baltic states obviously want Germany and France to invest heavily in their defense capabilities.” 

And at the global level, she said Germany’s foreign policy was also being challenged. “Germany has had for decades a policy of dialogue with Russia and China. Now Russia and China have become the main adversaries of the Western liberal order, and Germany has to rethink the entire model of its economic and foreign relations.” 

In November, Chancellor Scholz intends to visit China. According to Fix, “This trip to Beijing will be a test as to whether Germany has learned the lessons from its Russia mistakes: that too much dependence on one country can easily get you into a situation where you can be politically blackmailed or whether Germany tries to sort of cash the gains of its past China policy until it’s not possible anymore.” 

Who Is Olaf Scholz?

Next, the team zoomed in on Germany’s new Chancellor. Olaf Scholz took on Angela Merkel’s enormous shoes and immediately faced a complicated situation with dangerous crosscurrents. “The funny thing,” says Fix, “ is that many say that Scholz was elected because he resembled Angela Merkel. He himself was making fun of that. … What they have in common is deep stoicism. They will never be loud politicians. For a long time, he was the mayor of Hamburg, a big northern German city, which is known for being very into trade because of its port and which is known for having habitants who are very calm and very stoic when it comes to international or even to national crises. This background as a mayor of Hamburg and as a finance minister under Angela Merkel is shaping his approach today.” 

“No one in Germany really expected Russia to take this step [invading Ukraine]. But after the shock settled, [Chancellor] Scholz announced basically a complete turnaround in Germany’s energy policy, Germany’s security policy, and Germany’s Russia policy. It was a huge shift, but the question that you’ve asked — has this been enough? — is still not answered.” 

Is Germany Turning Inward?

Turning to domestic policy, an article in Politico claims that Chancellor Scholz has given several “Germany-First” speeches and is looking for solutions for the German people first.

Fix said, “I do see [Chancellor] Scholz as a convinced European. He does have a vision of how to develop the European Union further, but these are times of crisis, and the energy crisis is acute for Germany. Sometimes you’re overtaken by events. And I think Germany’s announcement that it would spend 200 billion euro to subsidize energy costs really shocked other European partners because, similarly to Germany’s exit from nuclear power a couple of years ago, they felt they had not been consulted.” 

“I would say that the brazenness with which Russia and [President] Putin have attacked Germany and have attacked the European Union really has led to the hardening of resolve in Germany. These aggressive tactics have to be counted because otherwise Germany and Europe will be open to blackmail from Russia at any point. … I do believe that Germany will get through this winter without making concessions towards Russia.” 

German companies have long had well-known, cozy ties with Russia’s private sector. How much talk is there now about [these ties] and how it’s affecting Germany’s position? 

Europe Has to Be Prepared for Acts of Sabotage

Fix answered, “After the outbreak of the [conflict], there was a lot of finger-pointing, and there were a lot of questions [around] who is responsible for this situation. What we don’t see yet is an inquiry like a parliamentary commission, something which would really deal in depth with those issues. But the energy question is [really] a broader question of German politics. There was really no one who opposed Nordstream 2 and [no one] who opposed this dependence on Russian gas. The benefits for the industry were just too big.” 

Fix thinks that now Russia’s structural problems have been exposed, it will be very hard for [President] Putin to win … in any meaningful way. But of course, not being able to win … also has its own dangers. “[President] Putin might just choose further escalation. Such as conducting sabotage acts in Europe to frighten Europe, to intimidate Europe by actions which are difficult to attribute, cyber actions for instance. I think that’s something that Europe has to be prepared for.”

“What concerns me more than the trajectory of the conflict is what kind of dynamics it unleashes in Europe. We see that Germany’s Eastern neighbors, especially Poland and the Baltic states, are very concerned about their own security, and they don’t have the impression that Germany and France, the other most important countries in Europe, are really doing everything they could for the support of Ukraine and for Poland and the Baltic states’ defense.”

“I think this loss of trust in Europe on the very fundamental question of are you going to stand in for your neighbors and support your neighbors. This is something which I think has to be monitored very closely.”

Dr. Liana Fix

Fellow for Europe at the Council of Foreign Relations

Liana Fix is a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She is a historian and political scientist, with expertise in German and European foreign and security policy, European security, transatlantic relations, Russia, and Eastern Europe. She is also the author of A New German Power? Germany’s Role in European Russia Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). 

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