Will Germany’s change of leadership shift the EU foreign policy?

Earlier this month, Europe and the world bid official goodbye to Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany. The global media coverage was extensive as she had been a unifying force for the European Union for the past 16 years. Following the general elections on 26th September that saw the Social Democrats (SPD) claim a surprise victory and the consequent negotiations with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), Olaf Scholz took over as chancellor on 8th December 2021.

The 16-strong Cabinet running Europe’s biggest economy is gender-balanced with eight men and eight women, plus Scholz himself, and is comprised of a three-party coalition with seven ministers from the Social Democrats (SPD), five environmentalist Greens, and four Free Democrats (FDP).

Continuity but with a change of pace

As he took office, Scholz vowed continuity with his predecessor on a number of areas, promising to champion social justice, accelerate efforts to cut carbon emissions, and maintain fiscal discipline in Germany. However, after 16 years of “Merkantilism”, that is the systematic prioritising of German commercial and geoeconomic interests over democratic values, human rights, and intra-EU solidarity, what should Europe and the world expect from the new Chancellor and the new Foreign Affairs Minister?

In her years as a “leader of the free world”, Angela Merkel has been reluctant when it comes to making major decisions in economic governance and foreign policy, opting for a wait-and-see approach that has led to inaction on the part of the EU on numerous occasions. While this may have been drawn from a preference for gradual progress over any revolutionary steps, it has also come to be seen as reflecting the lack of any vision for Europe’s future. A clear example of this inaction is provided by the EU’s inability to stand up to breaches of human rights on the part of  China and Russia. The question now is whether Germany (and the EU) are ready to transition towards a new era for foreign policy?

A transitioning EU foreign policy

In his first trip outside of Germany, Scholz claimed that “German foreign policy is a policy of continuity”, however the FDP and Greens have insisted on the need to conduct a more value-based foreign policy, demanding a tougher position vis-à-vis Putin’s increasingly repressive regime and against the severe human rights violations taking place in China.

At the helm of the German Foreign Ministry will be Annalena Baerbock, the former Greens’ candidate for Chancellor in the September federal elections. The key challenges ahead for Baerbock will be to push the Greens’ more confrontational footprint on foreign policy and to counterbalance Scholz’s more restrained status quo approach. But the open question remains on who the driving force behind Germany’s EU policy will be between the foreign office or the Chancellery, a role that has increasingly gone to the chancellor in recent years.

On 24th November, the newly formed government published a 177-page agreement to guide their policies, stressing that Germany has a “special responsibility” to serve Europe. When it comes to its foreign policy, the EU is currently faced with the task of dealing with intensifying rivalries between global and regional powers, and it is obliged to define its own strategic position while forging alliances with its partners. Human rights abuses and breaches of international treaties, as well as the strategic, increasingly systemic rivalry between China and the US is undermining the multilateral system, to which German and European leaders are committed.

The coalition treaty calls for a tougher EU position in its rule-of-law battles with countries like Poland and Hungary, with Germany now putting its foot on the brake regarding approval of any recovery funds to those countries unless “preconditions such as an independent judiciary are secured”. There may also be a significant shift when it comes to the unanimity for all foreign policy matters – a hurdle that the EU has been faced with on crucial calls for action, including the recent China crackdown in Hong Kong.

Zooming in on the EU-China relations in the newly started Scholz era, it is clear that Germany is no longer likely to act as a driver of closer economic cooperation between the EU and China. While Merkel’s ambiguous approach saw her critising China’s human rights violations, her government continued working behind the scenes to promote the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI). The new German government does not seem to accord primacy to trade in the same way.

Looking for a friend

The UK watches warily across the Channel. Strained relations with France, the gloom provoked by the new Omicron variant, and the recent political turmoil in Whitehall, all push Boris Johnson to look for a new ally in Olaf Scholz. However, such hopes may be in vain. The new coalition agreement on Brexit explicitly outlines Germany’s commitment “to a common European policy” toward the UK. And it insists on the need for “full compliance with the agreements adopted,” particularly the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs the contentious issue of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Scholz may also be even harder for the UK to deal with than his predecessor. A traditional believer in the Franco-German alliance, Scholz’s focus will be very much focused on the continent and less across the Channel, especially in view of the upcoming French presidency of the Council of the EU. This revitalised Franco-German partnership will likely generate new political and policy developments with which London will have to try and deal.

A turning point?

A likely scenario for the next four years would be a renewed Germany that serves as a driving force for the EU, both internally, by fostering the integration process in an inclusive way and externally, making Europe a more effective actor on the global stage.

The challenge of translating a “values-based and more European stance in foreign, security, and development policy” into concrete initiatives not only requires additional compromise amongst the parties that form the new coalition but will also determine whether Germany can become a driving force of EU foreign policy.

The road ahead is still long and with the Covid-19 pandemic very much back at the centre of the EU, UK, and global politics, it is too early to predict what is next for the EU foreign policy. One thing is certain though, Scholz may have campaigned as the candidate of continuity. But to succeed he will have to show that he is his own man while holding his three-party coalition government – and the slightly divergent approaches when it comes to foreign policy – together.

Political consultancy

The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at chris.whitehouse@whitehousecomms.com.