Feature: Is Germany Estonia’s new benchmark? ({{commentsTotal}})

Chancellor Angela Merkel with Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas in Tallinn. Aug. 24, 2016. Source: (AFP/Scanpix)
Features & Background
Features & Background

With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, Estonia will have to look for a new great partner in Europe. Some have indicated that it could be Germany — yet just at the time it could become more important to Estonia, Europe's economic powerhouse is facing events that may well lead to a much more Russia-friendly course, writes historian Jeroen Bult.

The news that the British electorate had voted in favour of an exit from the European Union came as a shock to many Estonians, especially to the foreign policy elite, and spoiled the annual Jaanipäev (Midsummer) holiday. The feeling that Estonia would soon lose its most natural ally in the European Union prevailed. A reaction that was both predictable and understandable: Estonia and the United Kingdom have been close partners in the EU since 2004, and even prior to that, regarding such issues as the internal market, (blocking) tax harmonization, (“atlanticizing”) European defence, and, last but not least, Russia.

The United Kingdom has already positioned itself on the fringe of the European decision-making process.

The less pleasant details of the bilateral relationship – London’s lukewarm enthusiasm for NATO enlargement in the 1990s, the suggestion by the Blair government to cut EU structural funds and the cohesion fund in late 2005 in order to finance its own rebate – were easily ignored.

The United Kingdom still has to start the formal procedure to withdraw from the EU and evoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, but it has already positioned itself at the fringe of the European decision-making process. Therefore, the question arises whether Estonia should start looking for a new benchmark, a beacon of steadfastness and tranquility in a Europe characterized by a lack of compromise, fragmentation, and populist forces on the rise. ICDS researcher Riina Kaljurand has alluded to the necessity to strengthen ties with Germany.

The political and economic importance of Germany has been highlighted before. Back in December 2011, shortly after David Cameron vetoed an EU-wide treaty change to deal with the debt crisis in the eurozone, publicist Ahto Lobjakas foresaw in an article in Estonian weekly Sirp that the crisis would mark the breakthrough of Germany as the EU’s leading power. (He even gave then-prime minister Andrus Ansip the advice to read the work of Thomas Mann and Max Weber.) And twenty years ago, then-foreign minister Siim Kallas already knew: “Germany is our main advocate in Europe, but if Germany is opposed to something, then there is no point insisting on it”.

After he had left office, Estonia rightfully condemned Schröder for landing a lucrative job with Nord Stream, though it never asked itself whether he might have been right about Iraq after all.

However, when Lobjakas typed his words and Kallas made his statement, Germany was still a stable, if not to say boring democracy, loath to profound political changes and still proudly devoted to Westbindung, the sacred principle of ever-deeper integration into the European Community/Union and NATO – Keine Experimente!, no experiments, as an election slogan of the CDU once epitomized it.

The most daring experiment so far has been the red-green coalition lead by Gerhard Schröder, which was detested by Estonia because of its fierce opposition to the War in Iraq and its rapprochement with Russia. (After he had left office, Estonia rightfully condemned Schröder for landing a lucrative job with Nord Stream, though it never asked itself whether he might have been right about Iraq after all.)

Schröder surely was not the first chancellor to look east. In the 1960s, his party, the social-democratic SPD, developed a political strategy that would become known as Ostpolitik. The rationale was that by seeking closer contact with Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and gradually winning their trust, the dire situation of the people on the other side of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall could be improved and, eventually, the division of Europe and Germany could be overcome.

SPD chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt were aware though that a successful implementation of this policy relied upon solid anchoring in the Western institutions (EC, NATO) and support by the United States and France. Historians are still arguing about the intriguing question whether Ostpolitik contributed to the collapse of communism and to German reunification, or whether it was sheer naivety and wishful thinking.

Merkel has been confronted with the limits of her influence in Europe. The German gentle giant is no longer a steering giant delicately exerting soft power to keep the EU tanker afloat.

Angela Merkel jettisoned the blunt manner in which her predecessor conducted foreign policy. She took into account the feelings of the new EU member states vis-à-vis Russia more plainly than Schröder had ever done; Germany became a gentle, reliable giant again. Merkel even expressed criticism of the deplorable state of Russia’s guided democracy and military adventures. Yet even she has been careful not to alienate the Kremlin too much, because of Germany’s addiction to Siberian gas and its business interests in Russia. She has repeatedly defended Nord Stream, for instance, including its controversial second pipeline.

However, during her current third term in office, Merkel has been confronted with the limits of her influence in Europe. The German gentle giant is no longer a steering giant delicately exerting soft power to keep the EU tanker afloat. The four Visegrád nations, especially Hungary and Poland, refuse to live up to the agreements regarding the mandatory distribution of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa, no matter what Berlin and Brussels have tried.

In the South, the mediterranean member countries of the “Club Med”, seizing the opportunity the disturbed balance of power presented within the EU after the Brexit vote, joined forces. They want to shake off the policy of austerity and reforms imposed by Brussels, at the instigation of Berlin. Exploiting feelings of discontent about this very economic policy, in Italy the oppositional, eurosceptic Movimento 5 stelle (“Five Star Movement”) is trying to win an important referendum in December. Should it succeed, another European and eurozone crisis could be born. France, Germany’s main partner in Europe, has surreptitiously endorsed Mediterranean efforts to break away from the tight budgetary corset and to switch to a pro-growth agenda instead.

After the SPD ended up in the opposition in 1982, its approach of Ostpolitik radicalized and mingled with anti-American sentiments.

So it appears German influence in Central and Southern Europe is not such a deciding factor anymore – will Berlin be able to counter this harmful tendency of regional fragmentation? But another factor should be taken into consideration as well, a factor that will affect Estonia more directly, both politically and psychologically.

After the SPD ended up in the opposition in 1982, its approach of Ostpolitik radicalized and mingled with anti-American sentiments. SPD delegations traveled to East Berlin to discuss “nuclear-free zones”, “security partnership” and “ideological cooperation” with the communist leaders of East Germany. Timothy Garton Ash’s book In Europe’s Name provides an excellent overview of this singular behaviour. Of course, the center-right Kohl governments also adhered to the continuation of Ostpolitik – without leaving the path of Westbindung, though – and many SPD comrades were sincerely worried about the nuclear arms race in the 1980s, and suffering from a sense of guilt towards the Soviet Union because of the Nazi attrocities committed there. Still, it goes without saying that the Kremlin appreciated the SPD’s eccentricity.

The Social Democrats only returned to power in 1998. It became clear that Ostpolitik, although the geopolitical and ideological context had changed after the end of the Cold War, still was an integral part of their foreign policy agenda. Both their aversion to the raw unilateralism of the Bush Administration and Schröder’s wish to profile his party as a staunch defender of German business interests engendered a strong inclination to allow for the susceptibilities of Putin’s Russia. Old protagonists of Ostpolitik, like Egon Bahr, its main architect in the early 1960s, and Erhard Eppler endorsed this “restart”. Calls to embrace Russia as an “indispensable partner for pan-European security” and a “necessary counter-weight to American power” have not been uncommon within the ranks of the SPD since. Bahr, who downplayed Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008 and advised to “respect” its annexation of Crimea, even praised Putin a “rational human being”. The Putin-Versteher, the Putin appeasers, had arrived.

The ruling grand coalition is trying to maintain the precarious balance between loyalty to NATO, stressed by Merkel’s CDU, and the need to uphold a dialogue with Moscow, stressed by the SPD.

As the junior coalition partner of Chancellor Merkel and her Christian Democrats (2005-2009, 2013-present), the SPD had to accept a certain amount of self-restraint. Still, Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel has spoken out in favour of a reduction of EU sanctions against Russia, while Foreign Minister (and forthcoming President?) Frank-Walter Steinmeier displayed skepticism about NATO conducting military exercises in the Baltic States and Poland (calling them “loud saber-rattling and war cries”). The fact that at the same time, Germany committed itself to the command of the NATO battalion that will be deployed in Lithuania indicates that the ruling grand coalition is trying to maintain the precarious balance between loyalty to NATO, stressed by Merkel’s CDU, and the need to uphold a dialogue with Moscow, stressed by the SPD.

Will this balance also be maintained after 2017? Tough elections are ahead for Angela Merkel, if she decides to run for another term, a consequence of her Wir schaffen das (We can do it) optimism not shared by all voters. More than that, discontent about immigration has boosted the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a right-wing populist, nationalist party that won several state elections this year, even in trendy, cosmopolitan Berlin. Like most populist forces in Europe (Estonian EKRE appears to be an exception to this rule), the AfD has expressed a negative stance toward the EU, the United States and globalization, and propagated much closer ties to Russia. Last April, its youth branch, the Junge Alternative, alluded to cooperation with Molodaya Gvardiya, the youth section of Putin’s party, United Russia. A documentary recently broadcast on German television revealed the existence of an extensive, blossoming AfD-Kremlin network.

Unless the party gets entangled in scandals and internal disputes, which is not uncommon in populist circles, the AfD will most likely enter the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house, at the expense of the CDU.

The German left – the SPD and Die Linke (successor of the SED, the East German communist party) – has lost its monopoly on Putin-friendliness, so it seems. The ideas of the AfD elaborate on the traditionally pro-Russian views of the reactionary-conservative forces in German politics and society (going back to the Bismarck era), and the ideas that were voiced by the New Right in the 1990s. Unless the party gets entangled in scandals and internal disputes, which is not uncommon in populist circles, the AfD will most likely enter the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house, at the expense of the CDU.

This will usher in a period of uncertainty, instability, and possibly introversion in German politics – which would make Germany a normal European country, a cynic could argue, but would paralyse the EU even more. The Bundestag would then most likely see four parties that are well disposed to Russia next year: the SPD, Die Linke, the CSU (the obstinate Bavarian sister party of the CDU that has repeatedly criticized sanctions against Russia) and the AfD. If the first two or the latter two are able to join a new government, Moscow has every reason to be pleased.

It is rather ironic that now that Estonia might decide to focus on Germany more explicitly, the EU’s most important member state and economic powerhouse could be facing political turmoil and potentially shift into a more Russia-friendly direction. Angela Merkel being able to fulfil her Wir schaffen das promise and a continuation of the grand coalition and its pragmatic, ambivalent attitude toward Russia might be the best Tallinn can hope for.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist who specializes in the Baltic States and Germany.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn



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