Angela Merkel’s long chancellery is coming to an end. In September, Germany will elect a new government and a new leader. Merkel’s legacy of balancing relations between Washington, Beijing and Moscow will be put to the test.
A coalition government is expected to emerge, possibly including the Greens. The result will be a pair of strange bedfellows creating a regime ruled by a fragile consensus with a strange mix of domestic and foreign priorities.
In this scenario, President Joe Biden’s plan to outsource Europe’s stability to Berlin and Paris will need to be watched closely. Washington and Berlin might find it much more difficult to work together. It may take a lot more work than previously imagined to keep the transatlantic community stable in the age of great power competition.
Even under Merkel, Berlin has struggled to come up with a realistic policy that challenges China’s malicious intrusions into transatlantic affairs without compromising German interests. For starters, Berlin is Beijing’s most important European trading partner. Merkel was the main supporter of the China-EU Comprehensive Investment Agreement, a controversial deal opposed by the United States and many Europeans. Last month, the European trade commissioner announced that ratification of the deal had been put on hold after China sanctioned European ambassadors, politicians and academics in response to EU sanctions against officials in the province. from Xinjiang.
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Merkel was also lax on Chinese 5G technology, despite widespread security concerns reported by the United States and others. Last December, the German government introduced a bill requiring companies involved in building 5G networks to ensure that their equipment is not used for espionage and terrorism. The bill was deemed too bland by the “Chinese hawks”, who instead passed a law giving the government the power to block “unreliable” 5G technology providers.
Meanwhile, Chinese shipping giant Cosco was in talks with Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG to take over a minority stake in one of the container terminals in the Port of Hamburg, a move reportedly made with government approval. German. It also sparked controversy.
Nonetheless, at the last G7 summit, the Chancellor continued to cautiously oppose the hard line on China, mainly advocated by the United States.
Merkel’s balancing act doesn’t stop with China. The Chancellor strongly supported the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia and expressed interest in a partnership on the production of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. She also recently called for “direct contact” between the European Union and Russia, a decision rejected by several European countries.
Even within his party, there is dissent. This was clear during the competition for the election of the new party leader. Former MEP Friedrich Merz, a strong supporter of NATO, called for strengthening transatlantic relations and adopting a tougher approach to Beijing. He collected the most votes in the first round of a three-way race for the party president, only to narrowly lose in the second round.
Armin Laschet, the eventual winner of the party competition and the frontrunner to become the next chancellor, seeks to try to follow Merkel’s lead. “I support the government’s Chinese strategy,” he recently told the Financial Time. “We need to talk about our concerns (on human rights) but there is no need to reverse our Chinese policy.” He also said at a conference organized by theBundesverband der Deutschen Industrie, he wanted a softer approach to Russia.
Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party is also gentle on China. His candidate for chancellery, Olaf Scholz, is the current vice-chancellor and finance minister. It favors cooperation with Beijing in the digital economy sector. Another prominent member of the Social Democratic Party, the current Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, recently said: “In the EU, we have described China as both a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival.” did he declare. âIn all these three dimensions,â he added, âwe need strong and lasting communication channels with Beijing. Decoupling is not the right way to go.
Some opposition parties, however, have a different point of view. Currently second in the polls, Greens candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock has called for more pressure on Russia and opposed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. She is also a harsh critic of Beijing. Hard positions towards Beijing are also held by the Free Democratic Party.
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The geopolitical implications of the next federal election therefore remain uncertain for the moment. The two most likely scenarios are: either a grand coalition made up of the CDU, the Greens and the Social Democratic Party, or a grand coalition made up of the CDU, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party. The second scenario could well lead to changes in German foreign policy, especially with regard to China and Russia, producing a strange mixture of alignment and disharmony with the United States.
The two governments will likely align on one issue, the return of the United States to the deal with Iran. This is a common point that is unlikely to help any government. Behind the scenes, many admit that the Iran deal will fail to hold Iran back in the end. The hope is that this will give the allies time to develop alternatives and to proceed with unity of effort. It just seems wishful thinking. In the end, the transatlantic community will probably be as tormented by Tehran as Beijing and Moscow.
The reality is that in addition to failing to resolve its Iranian problem, the United States will be frustrated with outsourcing transatlantic solidarity to what will be, at best, ambivalent German leadership. Washington will not see its Western allies stem from Beijing’s influence and fight to hold Moscow to account.
For the future, Washington cannot rely too much on Berlin. As a result, rather than disengaging from the Europeans, the Biden administration will find itself spending more time across the Atlantic or risk losing ground to Beijing, Moscow and Tehran at the same time.
This piece originally appeared in National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/feature/biden-could-be-german-election%E2%80%99s-biggest-loser-189029