Plenty for the new government to do in Europe | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.12.2013
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Plenty for the new government to do in Europe

Chancellor Merkel's first speech to parliament following her reelection called for reforms in the EU. Europe will be a major issue for her new team. It's a field in which success and failure lie close together.

"Whoever wants more Europe has also to be prepared to readjust some areas of responsibility." Those words from German chancellor Angela Merkel make it fairly clear that she can't imagine a future for European integration without changes in the EU treaties.

It was to be expected that Merkel would talk about Europe on Wednesday (18.12.2013) in her first speech to the German parliament, the Bundestag, following her reelection as chancellor, bearing in mind that an EU summit was scheduled for the next day. It's merely a coincidence due to the length of time it took to form the government that the summit is taking place so early in her term of office. All the same, her first speech being about Europe was appropriate: Germany is currently the strongest country in the EU economically, it's managed to get through the financial crisis relatively undamaged, and it behaves, as a result, in an appropriately self-confident way.

Carrot and stick

Policy towards the EU is unlikely to change much under the new grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats, according to Daniela Schwarzer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). The two sides will have to agree on a number of points, but in the end, Germany will continue to provide assistance for countries like Greece or Spain, while demanding reforms to make such countries competitive.

A man with a megaphone stands in front of a banner at a Greek demonstration

The pressure which has been put on Greece has led to social and political upheaval

"But the pressure towards financial consolidation has been too insistent, and too much adjustment has been expected of some countries," says Schwarzer. "You can see now that the economic effects have been more negative than expected and that this has gone along with political and social risks in the member states which I consider to be worrying."

As a result, she believes, the coming year will be dominated by ideas about how the adjustments and reforms in the EU crisis countries might look. And consideration will also have to be given to whether it won't be necessary to supplement the solidarity funds for individual countries with temporary assistance programs on the model of the post-war Marshall Plan.

Unequal allies

Another important European issue for Angela Merkel is Germany's relationship with its historic partner France. It's become a tradition for a newly elected chancellor to make his or her first visit abroad to Paris. Merkel did just that, traveling directly after her speech for talks with President Francois Hollande about the forthcoming summit.

Hollande and Merkel seated

Merkel's first visit was to France to consult with President Hollande about the EU summit

Just because of their size, if for no other reason, Germany and France are the decisive powers in the EU. But the balance between them is currently undergoing a change, says Katrin Böttger, deputy director of the Institute for European Politics (IEP): "One has the impression that France is currently becoming weaker while Germany is becoming stronger - not just economically, but also in their significance in negotiations."

She sees it as Germany's task to draw France along with it and push joint projects forward: "The past has shown that Germany and France don't promote EU integration because they always agree, but that, when they can manage to find a compromise, the other countries will support it." And that needs to be the case in the future as well.

The minefield of security policy

But although Germany's position is firm in economic policy, it's more insecure in the field of security policy. On the one hand, there's the repeated accusation that Germany doesn't get involved enough in international deployments in crisis areas. On the other hand, in many countries, the idea of a militarily strong Germany awakens historic fears.

That's why, according to Schwarzer, it's understandable that Germany tends to hold back when it comes to military operations, and instead provides more support for preventive and peaceful missions. All the same, Germany has to be prepared to listen to criticism of how it "lets the others get on with it" when it comes to defense.

Germany, she believes, has to strengthen the EU's joint defense policy, together with France, which is much more ready to send in the troops, and perhaps with Britain and Poland. That's all the more important since the US is increasingly withdrawing from "relevant areas of conflict" like Eastern Europe, Central Asia or the southern Mediterranean, leaving Europe to deal with those areas itself.

Powder-keg Ukraine

But it's not just in Central Europe that Germany has a particular responsibility - there are also calls for help from Europe's eastern edge. The pro-Western opposition in Ukraine wants Germany to mediate to get the country out of its political logjam. Böttger doesn't think that's good idea since Germany isn't neutral: "I'm hesitant, because Germany and the EU have clear interests in the region and they want to improve their economic cooperation."

a demonstration in Kyiv with a yellow banner

Some Ukrainians would like German mediation, but Germany isn't neutral

She argues that it is partly the EU's fault if Russia has won in the battle for influence: "I think the EU underestimated how important Russia is for this country," she says. "The EU makes offers about things like visa-free travel or trade, but they are only attractive for the people in the medium to long term. The people have to think about their immediate problems: how they're going to heat their homes and what they're going to eat."

That's exactly what the $15-billion deal is about in which Russia offered Ukraine cheaper gas and a partial relief of debt. And it's exactly that kind of action which the EU has always refused to take.

Böttger sees a possible solution to the problem, and she thinks the new government is already moving in the right direction: "Merkel said that one has to offer a 'not only, but also' to these countries, since an 'either, or' won't work."

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