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2020 outlook: Foreign policy dividing German government

Kate Brady Berlin
December 10, 2019

Heading into 2020, divisions in Angela Merkel's government over foreign policy could spell trouble for the Grand Coaliton and make Germany's role on the world stage even more undefined.

Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in Hamburg in July 2017.
Image: Reuters/J. Macdougall

The moment the clock strikes midnight on December 31 marks, for many people, the chance for self-assessment, for change, for a new year of resolutions – and Germany is no exception. As the world heads into the 2020s, Germany has been left still struggling to determine its role on the world stage: As Europe's largest economy, does Germany want to be a leader in the European Union? To what extent should Germany intervene in international crises and conflicts? What is the role of the Germany military? 

With the governing coalition already threatening to buckle under differing views on domestic policy, growing divisions between the conservative CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) over foreign policy and defense threaten to make these questions even more difficult to answer in the coming year.

At the SPD's annual party conference in early December, rhetoric from the Social Democrats' new leftist leadership that seemingly declared the SPD the anti-military party received enthusiastic applause. SPD co-leader Norbert Walter-Borjans warned against a "militarization of foreign policy," referring to foreign deployments of the German armed forces.

SPD party leaders Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken
Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken are the new leaders of Germany's Social DemocratsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Without directly naming her, Walter-Borjans' comments took a swipe at German defense minister and conservative CDU party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who in November called for an increased Bundeswehr presence abroad.

Walter-Borjans' criticism was later echoed by German Foreign Minister and senior Social Democrat Heiko Maas who also warned that trying to create peace militarily doesn't work. 

Read more: Optimistic US, pessimistic Germany differ on relationship status

"We [Germany] take on responsibility. But we take responsibility, damn it, when it comes to securing lasting peace at the negotiating table," Maas said. "Because that's where peace is secured, and not on the battlefields of this world."

'Yes to equipment , no to more weapons'

Since quickly taking the SPD leadership's reins on foreign and defense policy, Walter-Borjans has also criticized AKK, as the defense minister is known, for her pledge to attempt to spend 2% of Germany's GDP on defense by 2024.

At the 2014 summit in Wales, NATO members agreed on an aim to each spend 2% of their GDP on defense within 10 years. Now at the mid-way point, much to the disdain of other NATO member states, Germany is currently spending around 1.4%. The US, in particular, had already complained about the shortfall during the Obama administration. Under Trump, the demands have only grown louder.

Despite AKK's pledge to reach the target, however, Germany's prospects of attaining the 2% mark are diminishing. Faced with an unpredictable economy and declining tax revenues, there's little room for maneuver.

Walter-Borjans, nonetheless, said it is the Social Democrats' task to "do everything possible to ensure the craziness of increased armament" doesn't continue in the world.

"There is seldom a more disastrous combination of economic growth and government spending," Walter-Borjans added. "Yes to equipment, no to more weapons"

Call for solidarity in a 'drifting' European Union

AKK also wants a European aircraft carrier, but while the Social Democrats remain the junior coalition partner in Germany's government, that's off the table, said Walter-Borjans.

On the issue of the future of the EU, Walter-Borjans said in an interview with DW that it's a question of international cooperation.

"We are drifting apart, and Germany has a very important role to play in joining forces with France. What the French president is proposing is not always exactly - let's say - the Social Democratic variant of European politics. But at least it's an initiative," he told DW.

Walter-Borjans' comments follow growing calls from French President Emmanuel Macron in recent months to unite behind a grand foreign policy vision for closer integration of EU member states. In Berlin, however, the calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel often leaving the French president without so much as a definitive "non, merci."

Mistrust between Paris and Berlin has since continued to grow, with an increasing number of obstacles, including the controversial gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, the dispute between the EU and the US over tariffs and EU relations with Russia.

Disconnected by 5G

As Germany gears up to building its 5G network, the German government’s stance on Chinese tech giant Huawei also looks to divide the increasingly less "grand" Coalition.

While Huawei  has already been blacklisted by the United States and other democracies for its suspected ties to the Chinese government, German Economy Minister and senior CDU politician Peter Altmaier is against banning the firm from the bidding process.

Speaking on Germany's flagship political talk show Anne Will, Altmaier made an apparent comparison between US and Chinese companies, arguing that during the NSA spying scandal, Germany didn't impose a boycott.

Huawei 'not excluded' from German 5G network

"The US also requires their companies to provide them with certain information necessary for the fight against terrorism," Altmaier added, prompting heated criticism from both the CDU, as well as the SPD.

Foreign policy politician with the SPD, Nils Schmid, rejected the apparent comparison between the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei and US companies.

Read more: China cables: Germany under pressure to respond to Beijing's Uighur internment

"This statement by Minister Altmaier completely misjudges that in China no constitutional control by independent courts is possible, unlike in the US," Schmid told German paper Welt. "Therefore, there is a qualitative difference in the accessibility of Chinese and American intelligence services to our data. And that justifies a different treatment of internet companies from the US or other Western democracies and from non-liberal, non-democratic states like China."

Disputes over climate policy

Climate policy has also been added to the SPD's foreign policy wish list, with the new leadership duo calling for a more ambitious plan from Germany.

"Climate protection isn't domestic policy," Walter-Borjans told DW. "And I don't believe now is the time that we can sit back and say, 'We can wait and have a look again in two years' time."

Like the climate, international politics doesn't have time to wait for Germany to decide on its foreign policy. In a shifting global situation, European neighbors are looking to Germany as a reliable partner; one that consistently unites and leads, and isn't only around for a peck on the cheek come midnight on New Year's Eve.

But the transfer of responsibility now leaves Germany's government divided and facing a moral dilemma over a foreign policy that has long been based on values over action. Failure to compromise in the coalition and step up to global responsibility might well see the German government end in fireworks and left with a new year's hangover lasting well into 2020.