Driven by a new sense of its own responsibility, Germany has stepped up to take the lead in European foreign policy.

Throughout the Cold War, Germany was on the front lines. In a divided country, the relevance of foreign and security policy was very clear, at least to the political decision-makers in the West German capital, Bonn. As a consequence, Germany became an active member of the European Union and of NATO. It was very engaged in the process of European integration, but it was always reluctant to take the lead in foreign policy and especially in security affairs.

In 2012, ECFR documented Germany’s substantial leadership role in solving the euro crisis. This year, the Scorecard shows that in 2014 Germany established itself as the new European leader in the field of foreign policy. Since 2010, Germany has been a “leader” on specific issues in our Scorecard more often than any other EU member state, but for the first time in 2015 it claimed the overall top “leader” ranking, leading on 17 different issues, far more than any other state. In recent years, Germany’s willingness to lead has been strongly linked to its “geo-economic power” approach. However, in 2014, Germany not only intervened in economy-related issues, such as the negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement, but also supported democracy consolidation in the MENA region and made significant efforts to improve the situation of Syrian refugees. Germany was involved in foreign policy across all regions – it was categorised as a leader at least once in each of the Scorecard’s six chapters.

In 2015, Germany claimed the overall top “leader” ranking in the European Foreign Policy Scorecard for the first time

As had already been announced by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in late 2013, in 2014 members of the new German government, including President Joachim Gauck, initiated a wide-ranging debate on Germany’s role in world affairs. At the Munich Security Conference early in the year, Gauck, Steinmeier, and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen proclaimed the need for Germany to assume more responsibility in foreign policy. In February 2014, at Steinmeier’s initiative, the foreign ministry launched a review of German foreign policy. This process is meant to generate a debate within Germany’s political community and wider society on the prospects, interests, and objectives of German foreign policy. Most prominently, Germany’s new self-perception translated into concrete arms support for Iraqi Kurdish troops fighting against the Islamic State, a step which has been seen by many analysts as a breaking of taboos or at least as a significant paradigm shift.

The key development in 2014 that ultimately pushed Germany into its strong leadership role was without a doubt the Ukraine crisis and the resulting deterioration of the relationship between the EU and Russia. Berlin and especially Foreign Minister Steinmeier took every opportunity to find a consensual solution with Moscow, but at the same time, Germany became the driving force behind the sanctions against Russia, a country that was previously perceived by many EU member states as one of Germany’s strategic partners.  

Germany’s important traditional European partners seem to feel weaker and less certain about European integration these days, and so they look to Germany for political reassurance

Overall, Germany proved eager to contribute to the settlement or de-escalation of the world’s major crises last year, showing an increased sense of its own responsibility and a new willingness to act and lead. Although not always sufficiently prepared, and sometimes without a clear short- or medium-term vision, German foreign policy still managed to convince the European community of the fact that only common values can create a stronger union. Germany’s important traditional European partners seem to feel weaker and less certain about European integration these days, and so they look to Germany for political reassurance. And Germany’s remarkable partnership record in Europe is also a significant asset of its foreign policy. Through its geographic and economic position and its resolve for peaceful cooperation, Germany can connect more deeply with the different spaces of the EU than can any other member state. German foreign policy-makers should capitalise on this advantage by actively managing the expectations of Germany’s partners around the EU, by becoming more transparent to others, and by seeking their advice, support, and joint engagement. If it can successfully do so, Germany might remain the hub for a lot of European foreign policy initiatives for years to come.

Read more on: View from the Capitals, European Power, German foreign policy leadership

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.