logo ecfr


In 1989, the people of Germany celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall after 40 years of division. Astoundingly, just one year later, Germany stood on the international stage as a unified country, prepared to embark on a new journey to rediscover and redefine its role in Europe and the world.

The past two years have been formative for Germany and indeed for Europe as a whole. Germany has found itself having to step up and take initiative to find solutions to numerous crises and conflicts. With federal elections coming up in September 2017, there is a particularly increasing interest in the future of Germany and its pivotal role in Europe.

Since February 2015 ECFR Berlin has been publishing a weekly "Notes from Berlin" series. These short notes written by ECFR experts address the pressing questions in European politics from a German perspective. In this series, we responded to the desire within Europe to better understand Berlin’s role as a foreign policy player. We wanted to analyse the underpinnings and long-term driving forces of Germany’s foreign policy choices, while considering the thinking of decision-makers, the views of the public, and the weaknesses and tensions within the German foreign policy debate.

Recently, we have begun to complement these dispatches from the German capital with an inverted exercise in the form of "Notes to Berlin", authored by ECFR colleagues in the six other national offices across Europe and addressed to Berlin policymakers. These “Notes to Berlin” reflect on the impact of Germany’s foreign policy choices – or lack thereof – on European foreign and security policy as a whole. These articles provide policy recommendations to the German federal government that are grounded in the concerns of other member states.

Encouraged by the positive feedback we have received from our readers, we have now created a compilation of commentaries published since 2015 and also translated them into German.

The commentaries revolve around two entwined themes: “Germany in Europe” and “Europe in Germany”. Reflecting these two themes, the “Notes from Berlin” themselves are an exercise in self-reflection. They encourage open debate on Germany and its role in Europe, and they allow ECFR, through its Berlin office, to hold a mirror up to the federal government. The “Notes to Berlin”, on the other hand, allow the community in Berlin to identify perceived deficiencies in its approaches to European policy challenges.

This collection provides an insight into the quickly evolving political debate in Germany. This exercise is motivated by an awareness that policymakers across the EU cannot hope to build a strong Europe without a deep understanding of Germany’s interests, strengths and limitations. And that Berlin, on the other hand, needs fresh initiatives, ideas, and feedback from its EU partners to manage its growing level of responsibility in European foreign policy.

The commentaries included in this collection ask how Berlin’s leadership within the EU framework has played out in the three major crises of the past years — the Greek debt crisis, the Russian annexation of Crimea and large-scale irregular migration into Europe. But more than this, the notes focus self-reflectively on Germany and its position in the EU. How were Berlin’s performances on these key issues perceived by its partners? Where does Germany stand on fundamental questions of European foreign and security policy? How do European questions reverberate among the German public? And how truly “European” has Berlin’s leadership role in the EU been?

We hope that this collection of notes helps to increase our understanding of a country that, after almost 30 years of reunification, has come to embrace its leading role in keeping Europe peaceful and prosperous—and at a point in time when this can no longer be taken for granted.

Three major themes emerge in the commentaries:

Germany is no longer a junior partner when it comes to European foreign policy. This new phase in Berlin’s foreign policy journey comes with both expectations and concerns from Germany’s EU partners. There is now a need to re-think the EU’s coalition of foreign policy leaders with the United Kingdom departing the Union and the new U.S. administration questioning the foundations of transatlantic burden sharing. This will push Germany to move outside its comfort zone and take an even more active role in European foreign policy than it has to date.

The old narrative that “German interests equal the European interest at large” has been called into question by two of the three major crises of the past years: the Greek sovereign debt crisis and the debates about today’s refugee crisis. There is a growing feeling among the German public that while the government continues to invest a great deal of resources into European solutions, particularly on the euro and migration, their efforts have not paid off for Germany. While the vast majority of the foreign policy elite remains strongly committed to the EU, Berlin needs solid deliverables to counter growing public resentment. Germany’s partners therefore have an interest in keeping Berlin interested in the EU – and they perhaps take Germany’s support and leadership for granted at times.

Public opinion has always been important for German foreign policy. But with a growing responsibility in the EU comes greater potential for domestic tensions. In the German context, this holds particularly true regarding Berlin’s evolving responsibilities in security and defence. The federal government has made a genuine effort to involve Germans in the conversation about its policy choices in this field over the last few years. In the run-up to the 2017 federal elections, policymakers will be more mindful of public opinion, and foreign policy is likely to play a major role in the election campaigns. To better understand Germany’s thinking at the EU level, its partners need to comprehend dynamics of public opinion that it must navigate at home.

We hope that this collection will help to map out the nature of Berlin’s challenges. We would like to thank the numerous colleagues at ECFR who contributed to the series. Our sincere thanks go to ECFR’s editing team, in particular Gareth Davies, whose commitment has enabled us to run this series on a weekly basis during busy times. Christel Arlette Zunneberg also deserves thanks for her support in structuring this collection, and Wiebke Ewering for her valuable feedback and support in editing and layout. Finally, we would like to thank Stiftung Mercator for its long-standing and generous support of our work at ECFR Berlin and of this publication.

Josef Janning & Almut Möller
March 2017

Germany’s Role in Europe: Departure from Old Habits

As instability and conflict in Europe’s neighbourhood have continued to grow and exert direct effects on politics within the EU, the difficulty for Germany to carry out a strong and effective leadership role in a more and more divided Union has increased. The Greek debt crisis, the refugee crisis and the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine have challenged Germany’s ability to lead on the garnering of support for common EU policies and solutions. These multiple crises have had the cumulative effect of Germany’s development into a “lonely leader”. How exactly can we observe how Germany’s role in Europe has changed and how it may continue to evolve? How does Germany view its own role in the EU? Along what path will Germany’s character and assertiveness as an EU foreign policy leader further develop?

The Greek Debt Crisis

After ten years in office, Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself slowly but steadily pushed out of her political comfort zone in 2015 as she was forced to face the Greek debt crisis head-on. Political cleavages in Europe deepened in the face of the negotiations on a third financial package to sustain Greece, yet Germany held its ground and led the way in promoting an agreement of structural reforms and additional funding. In demonstrating its commitment to the idea of European integration and acting as the source of pressure to reach an agreement on the Greek crisis, Germany’s role in the EU took on a debate of its own.

The Debate on Today's Refugee Crisis

Despite strong calls from Berlin for solidarity and a burden sharing arrangement, Germany was left searching in the dark for its European partners on dealing with the refugee crisis. In its struggle to find consensus on a common EU migration policy, it was made evident that Germany’s lonely leadership was not enough for a functioning Union policy—leadership requires followers to be effective. Where is the common ground between Germany and its EU partners? What does the refugee crisis indicate about Germany’s power, or lack thereof, to lead on EU policy issues?

The Crimea Crisis and the War in Ukraine

Germany has been confronted with fundamental questions regarding Europe’s security as a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine. For the first time since 1945, Germany assumed geopolitical leadership of Europe. After leading the EU response in the conflict with Russia over the war in Ukraine, Chancellor Merkel faced the challenge of attempting to appease both domestic demands for restraint and isolationism as well as to address the increasing responsibilities of European leadership. How have Germany’s actions in response to the Crimea crisis and the war in Ukraine demonstrated a shift from its leadership role in European affairs?

About the Authors

  • Asli Aydıntaşbaş, Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR
  • Olaf Böhnke, Political consultant, former Head of  ECFR's Berlin office
  • Angeliki Dimitriadi, Research Fellow, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP); former Visiting Fellow at ECFR
  • Sebastian Dullien, Senior Policy Fellow in ECFR's European Power programme
  • Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow in ECFR's Wider Europe programme
  • Josef Janning, Head of ECFR's Berlin office & Senior Policy Fellow
  • Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, Head of ECFR's Paris office & Senior Policy Fellow
  • Almut Möller, Head of ECFR's Berlin office & Senior Policy Fellow
  • Angela Stanzel, Policy Fellow in ECFR's Asia & China programme
  • Mattia Toaldo, Senior Policy Fellow in ECFR's MENA programme
  • Vessela Tcherneva, Senior Director for Programmes and Head of ECFR Sofia Office

We would like to thank Stiftung Mercator for its long-standing and generous support of our work at ECFR Berlin and of this publication. 

Find all Notes from and to Berlin here: http://www.ecfr.eu/archives/C365

Download the German Notes collection here.