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Is Germany losing its EU leadership role?

May 20, 2022

Germany has developed a credibility problem since the invasion of Ukraine because of its history as a partner of Russia. This could have an impact on the balance of power in the EU.

Olaf Scholz looking out of a plane windown
Chancellor Olaf Scholz's level-headed and, according to observers, hesitant style is seen as weakness by someImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

A year ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was preparing to leave office after 16 years in power. Commentators from around the world praised her once again as the EU's most important leader.

Few voiced criticism of her role in preventing Ukraine from joining NATO or for pushing ahead with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany despite Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

This year, when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Germany's new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, "We have woken up in a different world."

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin having a conversation in the garden of Meseberg castle in 2018
Chatting easily: Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin both speak Russian and GermanImage: Reuters/Kremlin/Sputnik/A. Druzhinin

Russia's aggression not only shattered Europe's entire postwar order but also turned Germany's Russia policy on its head. In April, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invited Merkel to come to the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where civilians had been massacred allegedly at the hands of Russian troops, to see for herself the results of "the policy of concessions to Russia."

Best-selling Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov recently told DW that he sees a rise in anti-German sentiment in his country. "Quite openly, Angela Merkel is being blamed for the latest developments," he said.

Criticism is also voiced in Poland and the Baltic states, where people are pointing the finger not only at Merkel but at an entire generation of German politicians and their "change through trade" policy towards Russia. The former German foreign minister and current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, admitted to "misjudgments" that had cost Germany a lot of credibility. Most embarrassing, however, is the role played by fellow Social Democrat, Gerhard Schröder, a former chancellor who to this day refuses to distance himself from his personal friend, Vladimir Putin.

No real paradigm shift?

When war broke out, Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed a "Zeitenwende" — a paradigm shift, to underscore that the German government was willing to take action to support Ukraine. But, Scholz also warned of a third world war, and hesitated to commit to arms deliveries and to an extensive energy boycott against Russia. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki even accused Scholz of continuing to block more decisive EU sanctions.

Gepard tank
Some ammunition has now finally been made available for the aging Gepard tanks Germany has pledged (the picture was taken in 1987)Image: Sven Simon/IMAGO

The chancellor's restraint has not paid off in Russia either, said political scientist Volker Weichsel, who has been studying eastern European politics for decades. "The assumption that Scholz's 'level-headedness' would go down well in Russia is wrong. On the contrary, Moscow's propaganda used to depict Germany as a friend in an exaggerated way, and now it is vilified in an equally exaggerated way."

"The European Union expects strong leadership of Germany. But in the current crisis, the German government has continually acted very late and only in response to external pressure," said Weichsel.

This Friday, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, told the RND media network that he believes "the chancellor doesn't want to deliver" weapons to Ukraine. "One can get the impression that they are waiting for a cease-fire," he said. "Then the pressure will be off Germany, and then there will be no need to make any more courageous decisions."

Macron and Scholz meeting in Berlin in May 2022
French President Emmannuel Macron has been coordinating with German Chancellor Olaf ScholzImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Who leads Europe?

If not Germany, who could take the lead in Europe? Political commentators noted this week how Zelenskyy described his phone conversation with Olaf Scholz simply as "quite productive" and, by contrast, his phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron as "substantial and long" with a clear focus on Ukraine's desire to join the EU as quickly as possible.

But political scientist Henning Hoff of the German Council on Foreign Relations points out that there has been criticism of Macron's policies, too. "There is also a great deal of distrust of France," he told DW. "Macron embarked on a "strategic dialogue" with Putin in 2019 without prior consultation with the central and eastern Europeans."

In general, says Hoff, European policy on Russia "cannot be left to Germany and/or France. The central and eastern Europeans, especially the Baltic countries and Poland, must have their say."

Germany: A Community of Russians Divided

What can Germany do to regain trust? Political scientist Weichsel has three suggestions: "Support Ukraine's swift accession to the EU, provide consistent support for Ukraine's military defense, and complete a rapid and successful energy turnaround."

"The loss of prestige of the past weeks will quickly be forgotten if Germany demonstrates that it has a sustainable model for the future," Weichsel believes.

Hoff argues Germany needs to develop a new ostpolitik for its eastern neighbors. This, he says, "must focus first on Germany's close neighbors and EU/NATO partners, and only in a second step at what will hopefully soon be a post-Putin Russia. In short, Germany can only regain trust if it shapes its policies in cooperation with its European partners."

Volker Weichsel argues that a rethink is necessary: "For 70 years, German society believed that it could prevent war by never again turning into an aggressor. They thought their role was to keep on apologizing for their past actions. The idea that someone else could be the aggressor and that Germany would have to rush to the aid of a victim with weapons - that was unthinkable for very large sections of German society. The rethinking has just begun."

This article was originally written in German.

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