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What Will the Post-Merkel Era Mean for the EU’s Russia and Eastern Neighbourhood Policy?

2021 / 12 / 10

Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributing Researcher, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)

 

The relationship between Germany and Russia has always played a crucial role in the EU’s policies towards Russia and its Eastern Neighbourhood. In a little over a decade, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made 20 diplomatic trips to Moscow, becoming the primary representative of Europe in the Kremlin. Due to her importance, she has also played a crucial role in shaping the EU’s foreign policy. But the 67-year-old Chancellor, who has been in office for 16 years, is now leaving the political stage.

Merkel will be succeeded by Olaf Scholz, whose Social Democratic Party (SPD) emerged with a slight lead (25.8 per cent) over Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (24.1 per cent) in the national elections in September. The Greens finished in third place, followed by the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). After two months of negotiation, Scholz  managed to secure an agreement to govern with the Greens and Free Democrats. Hence, by Christmas, Germany is expected to have a new government, with Scholz  taking over the Chancellor’s position. With one of Europe’s most significant leaders, one who has played a pivotal role in shaping EU’s Russia and Eastern Neighbourhood policy, now leaving the political stage, the new government’s influence on the Union’s policies might be witnessing important changes.

 

Merkel’s pragmatic ambiguity

Traditional German Ostpolitik has always seen Russia as an important economic partner. In the past few years, the relationship between Germany and Russia under the Merkel administration became a bright spot amid deteriorating relations between the West and Russia. These relations also largely impacted the EU’s Russia and Eastern Neighbourhood policies. Merkel’s foreign policy was based on pragmatism, namely economic and financial interests. This approach did not change even after the Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014. While human rights issues and political security, such as the detention of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny and the Crimea crisis, have led to the lowest point in EU-Russian relations, the German Chancellor persisted in promoting dialogue with Moscow and kept up “selective engagement” with the Kremlin.

At the same time, Merkel took an important part in the political settlement on Ukraine in the framework of a new summit - the Normandy Format, which, together with the leaders of France, Russia, and Ukraine, she set up to de-escalate and end the war in Donbas controlled by Russia-backed separatists. However, as Merkel’s attempts were not in line with Moscow’s interests, she then insisted on sanctions against Russia at the EU level and pushed the Union to link sanctions with the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Merkel also played a key role in the Navalny affair, and she was personally involved in offering treatment to the Russian dissident in Berlin.

Despite that, Germany remained pragmatic due to its economic interests, and strengthened coordination with Moscow through diplomatic exchanges. Berlin has sought to resolve multilateral conflicts through bilateral dialogue, looking for the broadest common ground with Russia through third-party issues. Even on her last trip to Moscow, Merkel once again sought direct contact with President Vladimir Putin amid steadily worsening EU-Russian and German-Russian relations. She was the only one in the EU who would and could do this, maintaining at least a direct channel of communication in an increasingly confrontational relationship.

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents flowers to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their meeting in the Kremlin on August 20 (Source: Voice of America)

Berlin’s stance toward Moscow has always been crucial to the EU’s Russia and Eastern Neighbourhood policies. Germany has strongly influenced the evolution of the EU’s policy towards Russia, resulting in the Five Guiding Principles which were outlined by the Council in March 2016. Even though the Council agreed to act tough on Russia’s infringements of international law, and to contain its hybrid warfare, it agreed to selectively engage with Moscow on issues of interest to the EU. Like Merkel’s foreign policy, the EU’s five principles also encompassed the interests of Eastern Partnership countries, among them Ukraine and Georgia, highlighting the need to assist Eastern Partnership states in strengthening resilience to Russian malign influence operations. Recently, these principles were further developed in an EU policy along three lines: “push back, constrain and engage,” which once again echoes Berlin’s pragmatic but ambiguous foreign policies towards Moscow and Ukraine.

 

What to expect?

Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz  was part of the previous governing coalition, serving as Vice Chancellor and Minister of Finance. Before the elections, Scholz  had signalled that he would not veer far from Merkel’s approach of separating diplomatic criticism from economic cooperation. While Scholz  has been critical of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s borders and its attempt to undermine security in Europe, he has proposed a renewed European ‘Ostpolitik’ to Russia and the EU’s eastern partners. In September, then-German Finance Minister Scholz  made a statement on the necessity for a new strategy for dealing with Russia. While Scholz  underlined the need for “bridges and channels for dialogue” for a better relationship, he emphasized that Russia needs to accept that “European integration will continue”. This statement shows that Germany’s future Russia policy will probably be similar to that of Merkel’s and will be influenced by pragmatic approaches. Furthermore, the Social Democrats who are to lead Germany’s coalition government have a friendly attitude towards Russia, rooted in Willy Brandt’s ‘Policy of Rapprochement’ towards the Soviet Union. Scholz  has also supported the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has the capacity to deliver 55 billion cubic metres of Russian natural gas to Germany every year. This is another signal that continuity is to be expected.

The Green Party, which is a coalition partner in the new government, is significantly more hawkish towards Moscow. According to the party, its candidate, Annalena Baerbock, who opposed the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, has been targeted by a Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign. The Greens could potentially influence Berlin’s foreign policy, should they gain a high-level position in the country’s foreign ministry, by spotlighting human rights and domestic developments in Russia, rather than economic interests.

Olaf Scholz  (second from left) with the leaders of the Free Democrats, Greens and Social Democrats (Source: BBC)

What might distinguish Scholz from his predecessor is his willingness to work together with the EU and its member states “to further develop the Eastern Partnership.” According to the roadmap ‘Dare to Make More Progress: Alliance for Freedom, Justice and Sustainability,’ which was recently agreed between the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats, states such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia that are striving to join the EU “should be able to move closer through consistent reforms based on the rule of law and market economy”. This new stance could be a breakthrough for the Eastern Partnership countries, especially Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, which need more tangible incentives to continue their commitment to democratic reforms.

While Scholz  aims to simultaneously construct bridges with Russia and Eastern Partnership countries, it is expected that the interaction between Germany and Russia will continue to be based on pragmatism. Since former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Germany and Russia have been connected through practical cooperation. Diplomatic dialogues between Moscow and Berlin have never been disrupted, despite a series of events that had some negative impacts on the bilateral relationship. 

After Merkel leaves office, the fundamentals of Germany’s as well as the EU’s relationship with the Kremlin are unlikely to change. Judging from the need for economic recovery in the post-pandemic era, Scholz will not find it easy to drastically shift Merkel's policies on Russia, and the new government will continue seeking a balance between security and economic interests. However, a noteworthy difference with the Merkel administration could be a renewed push for closer cooperation with the EU’s neighbours and a more critical stance towards Russia on its internal repressions and aggressive foreign policy. Strikingly, a more critical attitude was emerging even when Merkel was at the helm. The only question that remains is how important the value basis will be for the new government, and whether it will prioritise democracy and human rights over pragmatic relations with Russia remains to be seen.

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