For Germany, it’s business as usual

Dr Oliver Hartwich
1 November, 2022

“Harder years, tough years are coming,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier told his country on Friday.

At least with this warning, Germany’s Federal President was being honest. Because more than half a year after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the German political leadership still struggles to come to terms with the dramatic changes in geopolitics.

In February, right at the beginning of the war, Chancellor Olaf Scholz had delivered a statement to Parliament. Back then, he called the moment a ‘Zeitenwende’, literally a turning of the times. In other words, the world before the war is no longer the world we live in today.

President Steinmeier echoed that sentiment, just with a slightly different phrase: “The twenty-fourth of February was an epochal shift. It plunged us here in Germany, too, into a different time, into an uncertainty that we thought we had left behind us, a time marked by war, violence and displacement, by concerns that the war would spread across Europe like wildfire.”

Scholz and Steinmeier both emphasise the severity of the situation, whether they call it an epochal shift or a turning of the times. In spite of that, both of them are failing to meet that challenge.

Steinmeier’s failure is not in what he says, but in what he leaves out. His speech last week was full of many statements and clarifications a German President should make in these times. There was solidarity with Ukraine, support for the armed forces, and thanks to everyone who helped refugees.

Steinmeier was at his best when he took on those who believed the war was a matter for Russia and Ukraine alone. As a matter of fact, he said, it was an issue for all freedom-loving nations because Russia’s attack represents an attack on international law.

Steinmeier’s portrayal of the three decades following the end of the Cold War, however, was naive and almost arrogant. His potted history had Germany reuniting in 1990, building a strong economy through hard work, and playing its role as a good global citizen. But this general harmony was then brutally disrupted by Putin and his neo-imperialism.

That is one smug way of looking at it. What is missing from this account are Germany’s many failures over these roughly thirty years which enabled Putin’s aggression.

There was no mention of Germany’s free-riding on America’s military protection. No reference to Germany’s running down of its armed forces. No discussion of the decisions to phase out its domestic energy sources in favour of Russian oil, coal and gas. No acknowledgment of Germany’s ignoring of the repeated warnings of its Eastern neighbours. No apology to Ukraine for blocking its 2008 wish to join NATO. Or indeed for not supporting it better after the invasion of the Donbas and Crimea in 2014.

Steinmeier would have had personal reasons to talk about these matters. As a former long-serving cabinet minister and foreign secretary, he was one of the architects of Germany’s approach towards Russia.

What did he have to say about all of that? Only this: “When the Soviet troops returned home without firing a single shot, it gave many people hope for a peaceful future. I shared in this hope, and it motivated my work over the course of many years.” Oh, really?

If Steinmeier had spelt out the lessons – or at least his learnings – from the past three decades, it would have been a worthwhile exercise. Yes, it would have been painful, perhaps even embarrassing for him. This would have helped, not least with the question of what to do next. And what to do differently.

The federal government and Chancellor Olaf Scholz are not doing any better in this regard.

In the making of the current crisis, Germany’s dependence on foreign energy played a key role. Still, there is no willingness to even discuss fracking. A three-month extension of the operation of three nuclear power stations almost brought Scholz’ coalition to an end. In place of relying on Russia for gas, Germany sought alternative supplies in Middle Eastern countries with questionable human rights records.

In supporting businesses and households, Scholz suddenly announced a package worth 200 billion Euros. Unfortunately, he had failed to consult Germany’s European neighbours on this measure, which affects their energy markets, too. As if the lesson from Germany’s past energy policy should not have been that it might be worth listening to neighbours’ concerns.

The port of Hamburg, however, proved to be the most egregious failure to learn from Germany’s Russia policy disaster.

A foreign autocracy controlling one’s critical infrastructure might not seem like the best idea. After all, Russia owned not only the pipelines, but also the gas storage facilities and even a German oil refinery. Even senior cabinet ministers were reportedly not aware of these arrangements. When Russia invaded Ukraine, they were surprised to find out that Russia had run down its gas holdings in Germany. And no-one had told Berlin in advance!

Has that lesson been learned? As far as Chancellor Scholz is concerned, obviously not. Scholz allowed Chinese shipping line Cosco to acquire a share in a terminal at the port of Hamburg against the advice of six federal ministries, the German secret service, both his liberal and Green coalition partners, and the European Commission.

For the politician who proclaimed the turning of the times, nothing seems to have changed at all. In fact, he is continuing where Angela Merkel left off in treating foreign relations as an investor relations equivalent.

Germany continues its own China policy as if it were still 1999, despite Western nations’ attempts to treat China with more caution, or perhaps even decouple from it as the US aims.

Scholz is traveling to Beijing this week to meet with President Xi. It will be the first time a western leader has done so since Xi made himself de facto president for life. Despite reports that France’s President would have been open to a joint visit, Scholz will travel without any of his European counterparts. Instead, Scholz is accompanied by a senior delegation of business leaders.

Germany’s two most senior politicians, the Chancellor and the President, are united in not living up to their own rhetoric. They have stressed just how extraordinary these times are – and indeed they are.

But when it comes to concrete actions, Steinmeier prefers to tell fairy tales of German history, while Scholz does business as usual.

Yes, “harder years, tough years” are coming for Germany. But they could be all the harder because the country’s leadership still is not ready to acknowledge its past failures or to apply the lessons to its future policy settings.

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