Rosa Balfour is Head of the Europe in the World Programme at European Policy Centre in Brussels. She has researched and published widely on issues relating to European foreign policy and external action. Her book on Human Rights and Democracy in EU Foreign Policy was published by Routledge in December 2011. She holds an MA from Cambridge University, an MSc in European Studies and PhD in International Relations both from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The enigma of Germany

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Berlin, the Foreign Affairs ministery building

Berlin, the Federal Foreign Office building

There have been many calls for Germany to take a greater role in international security and European foreign policy. The latest is an excellent report by a German think tank, the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, and the German Marshall Fund of the US, commissioned, and here is a piece of news, by the German Foreign Affairs Ministry. The report is the result of a year long process bringing together the elite of German foreign policy thinkers and practitioners, and it includes excellent proposals based on solid and forward looking analysis.

The results are impressive also because of the consensus built around the ideas developed in the report. True, the group split on key issues – notably and unsurprisingly on the degree of EU integration Germany should pursue and on the international legal requirements for military intervention. Nonetheless, the thinking community about Germany’s international role is unequivocal on the need for the country to come of age and take on greater responsibility in shaping the international and European context.

While all the proposals are welcome, there basically is one out of tune note: is any of this political feasible? Is Germany’s political leadership – one of the most stable and consensus-shaping in the world – up to it? When asking this question, the enigmatic aspects of current leadership in Berlin come to the fore. What is Germany thinking when it carries out its business in China and sides with Beijing and against the Commission on solar panels? Why does Berlin, the member state most committed to building a functioning European External Action Service, appear inhibited in trying to overcome differences among member states in reforming the Service to make it more effective?

The thinking community of foreign policy analysts may be more able to project Germany into the future, but its diplomatic community seems more sensitive to the perceptions of the country of its partners. Germany may be inhibited, but its friends in the EU may not be enthusiastic if Berlin tried to lead them on foreign policy. Already peripheral countries resent Germany’s role in the crisis, and see Berlin as dictating conditions and imposing austerity. The desire of Germans to be liked may not be misplaced.

But then, when disagreements do occur, Berlin struggles to communicate its thinking to its partners. On war and peace, Germany is not alone in having doubts over the opportunity and consequence of military intervention. But not only does it systematically have a different position from its most important partners – France, the UK and the US – but it seems unable to explain its positions and persuade others of its arguments, as in the case of Libya.

Finally, can we be sure of the depth of Germany’s commitment to European integration? For example, how far may Berlin be willing to go to accommodate London’s demands? The overall aim would be to keep the UK tied to the EU, but at what price?

There is little clarity coming from Berlin on all these issues – it comes as no wonder that its partners, which recognize the need for German leadership, are weary of it taking a stronger role in foreign policy. It also calls for a rather simple exercise: instead of shying away from discussion among partners for fear of opening up new problems no-one wants to deal with, debate, exchange of ideas is the only way to get to the bottom of ambiguities, misplaced perceptions and misunderstandings of one another.

Rosa Balfour



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