No Change, Please, We're German

Angela Merkel put commercial interests over liberal democratic values. Whoever succeeds her is likely to follow suit.

Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, at a political event in Berlin in March. Laschet is seen as a main candidate to be the next chancellor. (Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa, via AP)

By James Angelos

Germans prize stability above almost all else. Historical experience has “left Germans more fearful of anarchy than of tyranny,” as the late historian Steven Ozment wrote, inclining them to hedge “on the side of good order.” This penchant is evident in the long reign of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led the country for nearly 16 years and could have perhaps won another term, had she not chosen to step down this coming September.

Stability is also evident in the choice of Merkel’s heir apparent, Armin Laschet, premier of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who was chosen in January as chairman of her center-right Christian Democratic Union, making him a main candidate to become the next chancellor. Laschet, a centrist, is also her doctrinal heir: At a carnival parade in his home state in February, one float depicted Laschet as Merkel. “Carry on Merkeling with Armin Laschet,” it said.

For those espousing liberal democratic values, a continuation of Merkel’s policies would seem, on its face, a positive development. During the Trump administration, much of the U.S. press depicted Merkel as one of the last steadfast moral leaders in the face of rising authoritarianism around the world. In contrast to Trump, Merkel was indeed a model of responsible governance. But behind the pro-democracy rhetoric and veneer of German moral leadership in global affairs in recent years lies a great deal of moral and strategic ambiguity.

A sober assessment of German policies shows a country not guided foremost by advancing liberal democratic values globally, but by an almost ideologically neutral pursuit of its commercial interests—namely, gaining access to foreign markets for its export-driven economy. In December, for instance, when Germany was head of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, Merkel pushed to conclude an EU-China investment pact despite grievous rights abuses by the Chinese government, including the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and the internment and forced sterilization of the Uyghurs in the far western region of Xinjiang. Germany’s push to finalize the EU pact came despite opposition from the incoming Biden administration, which seeks unity with the EU in confronting China’s abuses. In March, the EU applied relatively modest sanctions on four Chinese officials in what largely amounted to a face-saving measure (though the Chinese government responded with stronger counter-sanctions, leading to an escalating spat).

The German desire to strengthen relations with China is partly the result of frayed relations with the United States under Trump. But Germany’s main interest is access to Chinese markets. The investment pact was a boon for German car companies and machinery makers. It was also a tactical and propaganda coup for President Xi Jinping, who has sought to weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance and increase Chinese influence in Europe.

Another salient example of Germany’s pursuit of its economic interests is its support of Nord Stream 2, a project to build a 1,230-kilometer (764-mile) pipeline under the Baltic Sea that will bring more Russian natural gas directly to Germany. U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle have criticized the pipeline because, they argue, it will make Germany even more dependent on Russia for its energy security, giving President Vladimir Putin greater leverage over Europe. The new pipeline, by bypassing Ukraine, also weakens that beleaguered country.

Merkel has backed the project despite opposition from many European allies. When the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Russian military-grade nerve agent Novichok, members of her government hinted that they might have to re-evaluate. “I hope the Russians don’t force us to change our stance on Nord Stream 2,” the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said. A number of German politicians—particularly within the Green Party, which opposes the pipeline on European security and environmental grounds—called for the construction to stop. In the end, Merkel stayed the course. 

Should Laschet become the next chancellor, he, too, is likely to stay the course. He has long advocated closer economic ties to China and Russia. At times, he has appeared to view the Kremlin with an almost naïve benevolence, triggering some German commentators to call him a “Russlandversteher,” a term of disparagement for those seen as too lenient on Putin. In a 2014 interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Laschet warned against “anti-Putin populism” in German society and seemed to downplay the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea that year. After the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who had defected to Britain, was poisoned with Novichok in March 2018 along with his daughter, evidence of Kremlin responsibility kept mounting. But Laschet hesitated to blame the Kremlin even after his own government had done so. Though he has since condemned the Kremlin over Crimea and other matters, he hasn’t quite been able to shed the Russlandversteher label.

According to polls, Laschet isn’t particularly popular among German voters, raising the prospect that Germany’s conservative bloc may opt for another chancellor candidate—namely, Markus Söder, Bavaria’s premier, a folksy politician with a populist bent. Whatever the outcome, neither candidate is likely to change much with regard to policies on Russia or China. In a Pew Research Center survey published last year, two-thirds of Germans favored increased cooperation with Russia, and 60% favored closer cooperation with China. Only half of all Germans favored closer cooperation with the United States.

There are some enduring cultural reasons for this. Positioned at the center of Europe, Germans have often viewed themselves as mediators between East and West. During the Cold War, for instance, West Germany pursued a policy of détente with Soviet-bloc countries under the banner of “change via rapprochement” or Wandel durch Annäherung.

More recently, a new slogan has been used to characterize Germany’s approach to various non-democratic regimes: “Wandel durch Handel,” or change through trade. Rules-based engagement with the world, goes the idea, will bring about democratization—or, at least, global cooperation.  By now, though, it’s quite clear that Wandel durch Handel regarding Russia and China doesn’t work.

Merkel’s steadiness—and her ability to endure while her political opponents flounder—has been her strength. She has kept an increasingly fractious European Union together despite repeated crises: the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, and now the pandemic. But she could just as easily be criticized for failing to anticipate crises or find enduring solutions.

Merkel has been most praised for the decision to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany in 2015 and 2016, during the height of that crisis, which threatened to tear the EU apart. Less attention has been paid to what has happened since: a concentrated and largely successful German effort, mainly through dealing with an authoritarian government in Turkey, to deter migration into the EU and make sure a similar influx doesn’t happen again.

With respect to Germany’s capacity to stand up for liberal democratic principles outside its borders, one need look no further than the growth of illiberalism right next door in Hungary and Poland. As those countries have slid toward authoritarianism, Merkel—in an effort to keep the EU running—has often pursued a path of compromise with their leaders.

German voters have long been content with this leadership approach: someone to safely steer the ship through troubled waters. But growing voter grievances over a poor vaccine rollout and other aspects of the government’s handling of the pandemic have hurt conservatives and may produce a political change come September. The Green Party, which is far more politically moderate in Germany than the identically named U.S. party, has been ascendant in polls, supplanting the long-suffering Social Democratic Party as the most formidable party on the left.

The Greens, who have taken more hawkish stances on human rights—at least from a comfortable perch in opposition—appear poised to take part in the next governing coalition, whatever form it takes. Merkel’s departure will no doubt produce some instability. But for the advancement of liberal-democratic ideals across Europe and abroad, a bit of boat-rocking in German politics may have its benefits.

James Angelos is a journalist based in Berlin and the author of The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins.