Germany will probably try to hit all the brakes it can find at Riga.
The Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga from 21 to 22 May will be a key event for Europe’s foreign policy. The strategic significance of Europe’s eastern policy has been highlighted by Russia’s pressure on Armenia not to sign the Association Agreements, the ongoing instability in Moldova, a new foreign policy style in Belarus, the Maidan in Kyiv, the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and finally the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas. And it has become obvious that Europe must answer these dramatic events with a different kind of policy: muddling through with a semi-integrative, fair-weather policy is no longer an option.
It might be expected that Germany, which is currently the strongest economic power in Europe and the leader in Europe’s sanctions policy on Russia, would be one of the driving nations in Riga. But this is not likely to be the case. The German foreign policy machinery is both too progressive and too conservative to come up with new policy ideas for the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).
There is no doubt that Ukraine is at the heart of Europe’s neighbourhood policy. This is not only because of the war, but also because Ukraine is by far the biggest and most populous eastern partnership country. Its transformation into a market economy and democratic state, if successful, will have consequences for the entire region. Germany has considerably ramped up its efforts to stabilise and support Ukraine. Alongside financial and humanitarian assistance, Germany and Poland are the two European Union member states most deeply involved in advising on and assisting structural reforms in Ukraine. The informal division of labour seems to be that Germany is taking on energy, financial, and economic issues, while Poland looks after administration and decentralisation. Frequent consultations and visits take place between German and Ukrainian officials and politicians and plenty of working and advisory groups are busy on the issues involved. However, this is happening as part of a bilateral policy, which pays little attention to the ENP’s instruments, since they are perceived as being too weak and too slow.
On the other hand, a leaked letterfrom German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker urged the European leader to respect Russian concerns about the implementation of the EU-Ukrainian Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreement (DCFTA). This showed that some parts of the German foreign policy elite are still haunted by the ghosts of the old Ostpolitik. Russia cites “economic disadvantages” as reasons for objecting to the implementation of the free trade agreement. However, on closer examination, those objections prove to be unfounded; they serve as a tactical delaying manoeuvre to prevent Ukraine from tightening its economic bond with Europe, to stop Ukraine from opening up to other markets beyond Europe, and to preserve Kyiv’s economic dependency on Russia.
Is the German foreign minister breaking away from the German policy of countering Russian aggression against Ukraine? There are worrying signs that he might be. Supporters of reconciliation with Russia are gaining momentum. For the time being, they are hiding their desire for rapprochement with Russia behind biased criticism about Ukraine not reforming quickly enough or not keeping up with the schedule agreed in Minsk. Behind the scenes, the debate continues on the ultimate ends of German policy towards the eastern neighbourhood. Is Germany’s goal to come to terms with Russia, or is it to protect the European choice of the states and societies who are willing to move West?
The strategic debate coincides with increasing frictions between the conservative CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats. The ongoing debate about the oversight of German intelligence services and their cooperation with the NSA has worsened the climate within Germany’s ruling coalition. Now, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Ukraine, and the ENP are in danger of being dragged into a re-ideologised battle for Germany’s political identity.
For all these reasons, Germany will unfortunately not take the lead on Europe’s neighbourhood policy and will probably try to hit all the brakes it can find at Riga. DCFTA implementation, visa liberalisation, and the membership perspective are the three main topics that should be decided on in Riga – and the German debate on all of them is anything but encouraging. Now would be a good moment for those states who are interested in the continuation of the existing German eastern policy – Poland, Sweden, Romania, and the Baltic countries – to come out in support of Germany’s current role in Europe so as to strengthen the domestic legitimacy of the new German foreign policy. Otherwise, Germany’s Russia-centric Ostpolitik might soon be resurrected from the graveyard of ideology.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.