Sidelined

Germany's Incredibly Shrinking Role on the World Stage

With a wayward president at the helm in the United States, the world has become a more dangerous place. In response, though, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is once again steering Germany to the foreign policy sidelines, clearing the way for French President Emmanuel Macron. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

By Matthias Gebauer, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Christian Reiermann, Christoph Scheuermann and Christoph Schult

Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party doesn't yet have a single seat in the European Parliament, but when the French president appeared in the body's plenary hall in Strasbourg last Tuesday, it already seemed as though he was in control. Macron shook hands with Federica Mogherini, the European Union's chief diplomat, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the enthusiastic European Commission president while a number of parliamentarians gave him a standing ovation. Others, meanwhile, hid behind signs castigating the French president for participating in the missile attacks in Syria. Macron stepped up to the lectern, where his speech, laid there by an aide, was already waiting.

Macron seemed to breathe new life and courage into the Continent after Brexit and the string of strong right-wing populist election showings. And in his Tuesday speech, he left no doubt about what is at stake. "Fascination with illiberalism is growing by the day," he warned. "The answer must not be authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy."

Macron's focus was astonishing in its breadth as he cited philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the grand narrative of American democracy. Meanwhile, at almost exactly the same moment, the German chancellor was having to seek approval for her vastly more modest policy proposals.

Specifically, it was Ralph Brinkhaus and Katja Leikert, two deputy parliamentary group leaders, who were reciting their concerns on Tuesday with Macron's EU reform plans. Merkel did what she could to counter them, invoking in her comments to conservative parliamentarians gathered in Berlin everything from the 1555 Peace of Augsburg to the crises of the present, but she was unable to generate much in the way of enthusiasm. In the end, she was so accommodating to her party's parliamentary group that it appeared that it was not Merkel herself who is determining the guidelines of Germany's EU policies, but rather a handful of parliamentarians Macron has probably never heard of.

Has the 'Queen of Europe' Been Dethroned?

Not even five years have passed since the spate of essays and opinion pieces about Germany's hegemonic power over the Continent. The cold reality, the Economist wrote, is that "Germany is the power in Europe that counts the most. Top brass in Brussels, or Paris, can talk as much as they like.

But until Ms. Merkel agrees, nothing happens." The danger, it added, is not that Germany will grow too strong, but that it could refuse to take on the leadership role.

And today? The world has become a dangerous place, with a leader in the Kremlin dreaming of former Soviet power and an American president who doesn't appear to be able to tell the difference between politics and a video game ("missiles, nice and smart"). The U.S. missile strike in Syria a week ago Saturday was not nearly as explosive as it could have been -- but that certainly was no thanks to Merkel, who stood on the sidelines as the major powers decided what course of action the West would take.

That's just one example of how Germany is once again finding itself in the role of onlooker in international politics. The German government had to fight for a seat at the anti-Assad summit taking place in Brussels on Tuesday. When it came to sanctions against Russia in response to the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal, Germany had no say. And in the EU, Macron is now in the driver's seat.

It's more than just symbolic that the French president is to be welcomed in Washington today with great pomp and circumstance while Merkel is only making a brief "working visit" to the White House on Friday, just before the weekend.

Germany has fallen into the background again, and this isn't solely the result of Merkel's tortuously protracted attempts to form a government following elections last September. That is the spin the Chancellery is now giving it. But in recent years, Merkel has frittered away much of her political capital -- particularly with refugee policies that were an affront to almost all of Germany's allies. Merkel has also seen her power in Berlin diminished significantly. For years, Horst Seehofer -- who heads the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU -- gave the chancellor a free hand in foreign policy matters. But he now says there is no way he would have gone along with a military strike against Syria. "I would have used my veto," he says.

The country is currently experiencing a strange form of regression. During the Ukraine crisis, it was Merkel and not the United States who seized the initiative. A short time earlier, at the beginning of 2014, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said at the Munich Security Conference that sitting and waiting was no longer an option. "If we have means, if we have capabilities," she said, then "we have the obligation and we have the responsibility to engage."

Trump had barely been elected in November 2016 before the New York Times began describing Merkel as essentially the last defender of the liberal West. The chancellor has consistently rejected such notions, and to a certain extent she has been right to do so. How, after all, is a country that is required to have long debates in parliament before it can deploy a single soldier going to defend the West?

At the same time, the chancellor also felt thoroughly flattered. Merkel had long hesitated in announcing whether she would run for a fourth term, but she decided to do so just a short time after Trump's election, a decision that was linked to a feeling that her leadership was badly needed in a world that was coming unhinged. And then, in the middle of her campaign, she made her famous statement that made it sound as though Merkel was abandoning the postwar order. Europe, she said, had to be prepared to "take its fate into its own hands."

Europe's New Leader: Macron

Those words could have marked a turning point in European history, but it appears that the only person who took them seriously was Emmanuel Macron, who was sworn in as the president of France on May 14, 2017. After just under a year in power, he has established France as the leading nation in Europe and it is now he who is the defender of freedom and democracy.

You don't have to agree with Macron on every point. There are good reasons to refuse to join a military strike led by a man who might one day confuse his mobile phone display with the proverbial nuclear button. And it serves no one if a future European Monetary Fund eases the pressure on Southern European debtor countries to reform.

And yet the French president still stands out pleasingly from the chancellor as someone who not only has the courage to form ideas, but also the courage to fight for those ideas in the face of opposition.

When Macron speaks about Europe, he does so out of commitment, conveying energy and passion.

He dances about like a boxer in the ring and there are six full glasses of water on the lectern. During the course of the evening, he will drink five and half of them.

On Tuesday night, Macron spent close to two hours speaking to around 300 people about Europe in the town of Épinal on the edge of the Vosges Mountains. It was his first "citizens' consultation" on the future of the EU. Macron would like to see to it that similar events are held all across Europe, including in Germany.

Macron didn't pick the easiest place to launch the initiative. As in many places in France, the major factories are dying out in Épinal, resistance to the EU is a tradition and the town's former mayor was one of the biggest opponents of the Maastricht Treaty that laid the foundations for the common currency. In other words, Épinal is not a place where Macron can expect to have an easy ride. Which is precisely why he came here.

Before the introduction of the euro, a Picon, a popular aperitif, only cost "five Francs at the counter," an angry older man said. "Now it costs three times that amount." A younger woman also expressed concern about growing competition from workers from neighboring countries.

Members of the audience also addressed the military strike in Syria, which Macron joined. All were questions that allowed the president to reveal his vision for Europe. There have been no wars in 70 years in Europe thanks to the EU, he said. "Think about that when you have your next Picon!"

"I have no red lines -- only horizons," Macron said during a speech given at the Sorbonne seven months ago. It is an audacious sentence -- a desire to look beyond one's immediate surroundings. But there's also a bit of hubris in it, a dollop of megalomania.

Merkel, of course, senses that a shift in power is taking place. There was a dark side to her role as "the queen of Europe," as some called her. Caricatures in Greece depicted her with a Hitler mustache during the debt crisis and Merkel dolls were burned in effigy. But she was also seen as someone who could not be bypassed if something was to be achieved in Europe. These days, however, it's Macron everyone wants to talk to.

At the end of European Union summits these days, Merkel often quickly disappears into her hotel after giving a short statement. Macron, by contrast, likes to use those events as an opportunity to make longer appearances with world leaders. "The real France is back," European Commission President Juncker said, visibly pleased, after Macron's speech before the European Parliament.

When Macron visited China in January, Merkel was in the middle of negotiations to form a government coalition together with the center-left Social Democratic Party. By that point, three months had already passed since the election. "He's conducting international politics and I'm stuck here," she told a colleague at a particularly boring moment.

Macron's style is totally different from Merkel's approach. He doesn't shy away from big ideas or from showing pathos or passion. In that sense, Macron is more comparable to Barack Obama, whose rise was to a large extent the result of his powerful skills as an orator.

Words Followed by Actions

In contrast to Obama, though, Macron has so far always followed up his words with actions. In mid-February, he announced that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross the "red line" leading him to take retaliatory military action.

It was more than just a symbolic statement. Macron didn't just use the same formulation that Obama had used almost six years earlier, but the French president also went on to launch missiles against Assad following the presumed deployment of chemical weapons in early April in Douma.

Merkel would never come to the idea of seeking to assume America's leadership role. She's fully aware of the dilapidated state of the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, and she knows that the German people don't want to become entangled in the world's conflicts.

Merkel's pragmatism has always been the source of her success. It was only when she showed an apparently idealistic side during the refugee crisis that her popularity began to slip.

The German chancellor also lacks Macron's clear talent for dramaturgy. Merkel would never give a victory speech in front of a national symbol in the way that Macron did on the evening of his presidential election, when he spoke in front of the Louvre's glass pyramid, backed by the EU anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." When Merkel nearly scored an absolute parliamentary majority in the 2014 elections and supporters at CDU party headquarters began triumphantly waving paper German flags in celebration, she quickly moved to have them collected. The display was simply too ostentatious for her taste.

Merkel's rise to become the queen of Europe was by no means orchestrated -- it was a product of the logic of the euro crisis. She was the woman with the most cash, which conferred her power in Brussels. She also dealt with the crisis the same way she does with every other: with no overarching plan, but with considerable understanding for detail. Ultimately, Greece was permitted to remain in the eurozone and Europe got a bailout fund.

And whereas Merkel seeks to carefully untie Gordian knots, Macron seeks to cut them in half.

He has just created a new political force from scratch and decimated France's two traditional parties, the socialists and the conservatives -- which had for decades determined the country's destiny.

That experience has lent Macron a self-confidence possessed by few French leaders since Charles de Gaulle. If he was able to revolutionize France, then why wouldn't he be able to do the same for the EU, Europe and, yes, Western power structures?

Macron has convinced the French that their future is in Europe, and there is correspondingly great pressure now, one year before the next European Parliament elections, for him to present his first successes. And he made clear in his speech before European Parliament on Tuesday that he would achieve those successes even absent a major pact with Berlin.
Macron Is Well Aware of Germany's Contraints

The French president says that the EU has always been the result of ambitions pursued by "crazy people." In his speech on Tuesday, Macron didn't dedicate a single word to the Franco-Germanic partnership, "deliberately," as he would later say when a member of parliament asked him about it.

Macron is aware of the German chancellor's constraints. He knows that there are plenty of members of parliament from the CDU and the CSU who fear nothing more than the idea that Germany might invest a few billion euros more each year in the European community than it does now. As a result, he has been trimming his public statements down to Merkel's size for some time now.

In Strasbourg, for example, he spoke only of a "road map to enable us to advance step by step on banking union and establish a budgetary capacity to promote stability and convergence in the euro area." It almost sounded like something Merkel would say.

Merkel and German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz have taken note with no shortage of gratification.

There have already been several occasions when the two of them have sat together in the Chancellery considering how to respond to Macron. Both are determined to present a plan for the future together with the French president at the EU summit in June. The question, though, is what it will include.

After all, both are extremely critical of some of the French president's proposals and are skeptical that Macron's idea of installing a European finance minister is a good idea. They also aren't particularly fond of his proposal to establish a special budget for the eurozone to compensate for economic fluctuations within the currency area.

But the greatest conflict is the one over the future of the eurozone. One compromise would be to upgrade the European Stability Mechanism, the euro bailout fund, to become a kind of European Monetary Fund. The political calculation on the part of the German Chancellery and the Finance Ministry in Berlin is that the body could establish itself as an early warning system for public finances within the eurozone. It could also play a more important role in bank bailouts, as Macron has in mind.

Balancing Act

Merkel is facing a balancing act. She has to prevent a situation in which Macron loses either face or his patience. At the same time, she has to consider the resistance within her own ranks.

Many conservative parliamentarians in Berlin view the French president's activities with suspicion.

"I see absolutely no reason why I should make Macron's personal sense of happiness my political program," says Alexander Dobrindt, who heads the CSU party group in parliament.

The CSU, which shares power with the CDU at the national level, has always struggled with Merkel's EU policies, but in recent years, CSU party head Horst Seehofer has largely allowed the chancellor to do as she pleases on that front.

With Seehofer having now ceded much of his power in the CSU to Markus Söder, the party has become noticeably more obstinate on EU reform policy and will certainly not agree to anything that could jeopardize its position heading into Bavarian state elections in October.

Nor can Merkel rely entirely on parliamentarians from her own CDU. A recent European policy paper by deputy party whips Brinkhaus and Leikert may have been put forward as a mere position paper, but the reality is that it also contained a hidden threat to the chancellor.

The paper makes a specific reference to Article 23, Paragraph 3 of the German constitution that notes that parliament must be allowed to state its position in any negotiations with the EU.

That may sound technical, but in practice it has enormous consequences because it ties the government's hands in negotiations, preventing it from simply defying the guidelines set by parliament. The fact that parliamentarians from the chancellor's own party are threatening such a thing is rather unusual. Even if no decisions were made in the end, it still sent a clear message. "In addition to the party base, the parliamentary group has now also made clear that it is not willing to simply accept the government's policies," says one senior member of the parliamentary group.

How, though, is a chancellor who is facing such deep doubts from within her own party supposed to place an active role in charting Europe's future course? Even if Merkel had ideas, it's quite possible that she wouldn't be able to implement them now.

During her time as chancellor, Merkel has worked together with four French presidents. There was Jacques Chirac, with his machismo charm, the hyper-nervous Nicolas Sarkozy and then the misfortunate François Hollande. Ultimately, none of them proved to be a match for her. But now, Macron seems to be exactly that. He fills in every void that she leaves open.

An Antithesis and Ally

Macron recognized early on the potential created by Donald Trump's presidency -- above all for himself. The French president has succeeded in positioning himself to appear as both the U.S. president's antithesis and a his closest ally.

He shook Trump's hand so long at the G-7 summit that his knuckles turned white. He also promptly told the world why he had done so. And Trump told a French weekly that strength is what matters most to him.

It was the start of a wonderful friendship. A short time later, Macron invited his American counterpart to celebrate Bastille Day, the French national holiday, together. The images from that July 14, 2017 event went around the world. They showed Macron embracing Trump, almost hugging him, and they dined together with their wives at a posh restaurant in the Eiffel Tower.

Trump has said that Macron is "smart" and "strong" and "he's my friend."

This week, it is Macron's turn to travel to Washington at Trump's invitation -- for the first official state visit hosted by Trump after more than a year in the White House. For three days, the two, Donald and Emmanuel, will be celebrating the Franco-American friendship.

But while Trump is rolling out the red carpet for Macron, the best the German chancellor can expect is a one-day working visit -- and that's not just because Macron is a head of state and Merkel is merely a head of government.

There can be no doubt about the fact that Trump considers Macron to be his main point of contact in Europe. There's no other leader with whom he has such a personable relationship.

"We don't always agree, but we admire each other a great deal. We have a lot in common," Macron has said.

Merkel, on the other hand, has so far failed to succeed in establishing an even halfway reliable connection with Trump. As a woman, of course, the bromance route taken by Macron isn't open to her. His approach to the American president is reminiscent of the relationship former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had with Vladimir Putin: He's building up contact at the emotional and half-private level that he might be able to turn into political capital at a later date.

Merkel has never had that ability. Until recently, however, she had been considered the woman who could rein in men with outsized egos like Erdogan, Putin and Trump -- with her sharp mind, her "no bullshit" attitude and her approach of keeping emotions out of politics to the extent possible.

But emotions also play a role in global politics. Trump hasn't forgotten how Merkel lectured him while congratulating him over his election, admonishing him not to lose sight of values like democracy, freedom and human dignity. Now it's Macron who is his friend and Merkel is left looking like the school teacher.

The military strike against Assad in Syria this month also brought Trump and Macron even closer together. Macron's advisers say he telephones almost daily with Trump. "The mutual trust is great," says a diplomat who advises Macron on foreign policy.

German Absence

Trump and Macron planned the strike against the Assad regime together with British Prime Minister Theresa May, but without any German involvement whatsoever. They didn't even think to ask Germany for military support because they already suspected what the answer would be: Do it without us.

As such, Merkel's cabinet remained largely clueless about the timing and scope of the retaliatory strike that followed Assad's poison gas attack. The only reliable information channel was that between German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her U.S. counterpart James Mattis, one of the few pragmatic politicians still present in the Trump administration. Von der Leyen and Mattis call each other regularly, even in the days following Trump's threatening tweets against Russia.

Officials at Defense Ministry also have another channel of information in Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and were able to use it to get a rough idea of what the retaliatory strike might like look. And it wasn't without a certain amount of pride that the ministry passed its insider information along to the Chancellery.

Meanwhile, Trump demonstratively thanked France and Britain for participating in the military strike against Assad. It's been a long time since Germany was the subject of any praise from Trump.

Indeed, Germany's military reserve has not sat well within the White House. Richard Grenell, Trump's candidate for U.S. ambassador to Germany, tweeted after the military strike that Berlin should have participated as well. Grenell's situation is indicative of the sad state of relations right now between Germany and the U.S. Trump hasn't had an ambassador in Berlin for a year and the Democrats in the U.S. Senate are refusing to confirm his nominee.

No one in Washington understands the German position on the airstrikes in Syria -- supportive but unwilling to participate. The gap between words and deeds in German foreign policy is simply too wide. That was inherent in the contradictory statements coming out of Berlin the day after the attack by its Western allies in Syria. Chancellor Merkel said the military deployment had been "necessary and appropriate. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Maas expressed his understanding for the German military's deployment in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 to stop the murder in Kosovo. But despite estimates of up to a half-million dead in Syria, he is still unwilling to draw a direct line between the past and the present. "In this conflict, that is not the role that we, in consultation with our partners, wish to play," Maas said.

It sounded a little like the old division of labor under the mantra that one party shoots and the other mediates. But the reality is that Germany isn't really playing any role at all. German is having trouble even getting a place at the table.

After the attack in Syria, those who participated in the airstrikes have thus far been uninterested in hearing about German mediation efforts and peace initiatives. "For now, our influence has shrunk even further," says one member of Merkel's cabinet.

Plus, Chancellor Merkel and her foreign minister apparently don't agree entirely on how the political process in Syria should be structured. Maas wants to exclude the possibility of negotiations with Assad but the Chancellery is less dogmatic about the issue.

Shrinking Influence

After the Skripal case, Macron and Trump were likewise quick to establish a joint position -- and again the German government dallied when it came to punitive measures for Moscow. Definitive evidence proving Moscow is behind the attack is still lacking today. But the British government has pressured its allies to show solidarity and to tighten Russian sanctions. Macron sided with London at the time and against the Germans.

Government sources in Berlin say that Macron offered the British and the Americans tough sanctions without first discussing the matter with Merkel. He is said to have proposed closing Russian diplomatic outposts in France and also threatened to go it alone if the Germans refused.

Ultimately, Berlin had no choice but to go along. In the end, the German government moved to expel four Russian Embassy employees in order to avoid totally isolating itself.

The incident is even more telling given that Russia had long been Merkel's domain in Europe. It was during the Ukraine crisis that the chancellor chalked up her greatest foreign policy successes. Never before in postwar history has Germany played as important a foreign policy role as it did the night in Minsk in February 2015 when, at the peak of fighting in eastern Ukraine, Merkel mediated between Moscow and Kiev and prevented the war from spreading further. At the time, she had then-French President François Hollande in tow. He fell asleep at the table as Merkel moved to rescue world peace.

Merkel convinced the Americans not to deliver weapons to Ukraine and was considered the only person who had a chance of getting anywhere with Putin. Ultimately, though, the numerous telephone calls between the chancellor and the Kremlin chief only created the appearance of closeness. In fact, Merkel and Putin have never established a trusting relationship. It has been years since Putin has come to Germany for a bilateral visit. Merkel was last in Moscow in 2015 for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. A new visit is currently in the planning stages.

It's about time. After a phase of self-occupation, the country needs to kick back into gear in foreign policy terms if it doesn't want to completely cede its claim to leadership and responsibility.

Berlin Should Support Macron

Macron needs to finally be provided with answers to his proposals for the eurozone. And Berlin needs to show some support for reform -- for the European Monetary Fund, for example. This won't be possible without yielding further sovereignty to Brussels. At the same time, that doesn't necessarily have to mean that Berlin moves away from the correct principles that guided it through the euro crisis -- namely that it will only provide its financial solidarity in exchange for structural reforms.

A new effort is needed in Ukraine, and Foreign Minister Maas has already announced his plan to launch one. The country in the EU's backyard has more than 40 million citizens and threatens to become a failed state. Germany cannot leave the country in the lurch.

Most importantly, however, Germany has to answer this question: Who are we? Where do we stand in the conflict between Russia and the West? Germany is a part of the West, but it could also use its special relations with Russia in ways aimed at preventing the further escalation of the new East-West conflict.

Even if it is difficult for her, the German chancellor needs to establish better ties to Trump, and it would be correct to rebuild contacts at all levels. Macron has already demonstrated that it is possible to exercise influence on Washington. It's in Germany's interest that the United States remain in Syria in order to protect the Kurds there from Turkish aggression, but also to ensure that a Western presence remains and that the conflict is not left entirely in the hands of the Russians, Iranians and Turks.

Finally, even if it was right that Germany didn't participate in the April 13 airstrikes -- the country cannot continue to practice military abstinence in the long run. That's why it is necessary to take steps to limit the requirement of German parliamentary approval for all forms of military action. Doing so is necessary to establish the conditions that would allow Germany to participate in any rapid deployment that might be required. It would also be a prerequisite for closer military cooperation within Europe. That's a view that, incidentally, is also shared by the French president. When Macron stood at Merkel's side on Thursday during his visit to Berlin, a journalist asked him if he would like to see greater German involvement in Syria.

He said he had held intensive discussions with Merkel in the days prior to the military strike. But, he said, German participation would not have been realistic because of constitutional restraints. In a volatile situation like that, he added, you can't "wait several weeks for a parliamentary debate."
Macron might as well have said: It's time for Germany to play a more active role.


By Matthias Gebauer, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Christian Reiermann, Christoph Scheuermann and Christoph Schult

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