Ahead of the French-German summit this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged more engagement in Africa and closer military collaboration with Paris. But is there true conviction behind her promises?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made recent reference to Germany's new foreign policy approach, albeit in a rather hushed manner. In an interview published as a video podcast, Merkel spoke with a member of the Franco-German Youth Office first about the Elysee Treaty and then went on to praise a mission undertaken by German troops: "We supported the French Army in Mali by helping them refuel their aircraft." But then she got to her key point: "There's room for more cooperation."
For 25 years, a 6,000-troop strong German-French military brigade has trudged along, never being sent out in its entirety on a mission, despite pleas to do so from Paris. France has petitioned the German government for many years to provide assistance with military missions in Africa, in particular. But for just as long, Germany has refused - even in clear cases of humanitarian missions. At most, Berlin has sent a few paramedics or military trainers, as is the case now in Mali, or made supplies available.
Germany: an able and willing ally?
The last four years have been particularly disappointing for France in terms of military collaboration. While Germany grew more and more economically powerful, the country has taken on less and less under Chancellor Merkel when it comes to foreign and security policy. Her previous foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, even spoke of "a culture of restraint" when it came to military missions and then-defense minister Thomas de Maiziere gruffly countered Paris' calls for more military engagement by saying Germany didn't need any lessons from its partners on that point.
"In France, those in foreign policy and security circles were asking themselves whether Germany is even still able and ready to form alliances," said Stefan Seidendorf of the German-French Institute (dfi) in Ludwigsburg.
It's only against this background that it becomes clear why so many commentators in both countries view Merkel's comments on German-French cooperation as a turning point in Germany's foreign policy approach. Meanwhile, Germany's newly formed grand coalition government is positioning itself differently than its predecessor.
President Joachim Gauck as well as the incoming foreign and defense ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Ursula von der Leyen, have called for greater German engagement abroad. Von der Leyen even indicated during her most recent trip to Africa that Germany has military capacity available. Her basic message seemed to be that Germany is prepared to take on more responsibility in the future, including in Africa. The chancellor is making assurances that Germany will share the burden there with France.
France's warning shot
But a number of doubts and open questions remain. Political scientist Seidendorf, who specializes in German-French relations, said he believes that the foreign policy shift has occurred less because of any sincere conviction and more due to EU partners' mounting impatience.
"Recent EU summits have shown that the politics of restraint propagated by Westerwelle are no longer tenable," said Seidendorf, who notes that the clearest sign of that is French President Francois Hollande's announcement to withdraw the last French regiment stationed in Germany.
"The affair concerning the regiment in Donaueschingen was a final warning shot to the German government to signal: 'If you all don't want to or can't take part, then we have to look for other partners,'" the researcher explained.
Merkel seems to have understood the meaning behind the French move, but there has been little evidence so far that the new tone on foreign policy is indeed backed up by a new sense of responsibility in Germany. Although the chancellor recently lent her support in Brussels to a European mission in central Africa aimed at ending the bloody fighting between Christians and Muslims, she wants to leave the precarious military work to others.
Merkel hopes to prevent the EU Battlegroup, a European military unit formed within the last decade, from intervening. That's because starting in June, it will be Germany's turn to provide troops for the Battlegroup. German soldiers might then have to fight on the ground in Central African Republic, and Merkel absolutely wants to avoid that outcome. The German government is exploring whether it could instead assist the French brigade in Mali. That move would have high symbolic value, and it would leave the responsibility for the Central African Republic in the hands of the French.
A turn in French missions in Africa
Many of Germany's EU partners are frustrated that the country says only what it does not want, rather than making suggestions for improving security policy. Particularly in Africa, Germany would have good reason to take on more responsibility, said Seidendorf, explaining that many of the conflicts there are leading to a rise in Islamism and the emergence of new waves of refugees.
Increased German military engagement could also help to defuse France's old mistakes in dealing with Africa. Seidendorf said he believes French foreign policy in Africa is currently in a process of change. While earlier missions, such as that in Ivory Coast, clearly took place guided by late colonial motives involving maintaining political influence, the operations in Mali and the Central African Republic show that France is now more interested in offering humanitarian aid and stabilizing the region.
If Germany lends support in Africa, Seidendorf said it would secure and could even spur on the positive shift in French security policy, "Particularly in former French colonies, European aid would be perceived in a more positive way than purely French support, which is still regarded with reservation."