Ethics and pocket: values and interests. That is one constant dilemma in German foreign policy. Angela Merkel knows this well, for many years she has struck a difficult balance, promoting the international business of the DAX 30 while denouncing human rights abuses and defending democracy beyond her borders. But 2020 has gotten in his way. The opacity with which China concealed the beginnings of the pandemic, the abuses of Beijing in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the poisoning with Novichok of the Russian opponent Alexéi Navalni and the Turkish aggressiveness in the eastern Mediterranean are making it impossible for the Chancellor to maintain her equidistant pragmatism . Their position, which has come to be seen as lucrative and inspiring, may end up being seen as self-serving, contradictory, and ultimately counterproductive.
Few leaders in Europe, and throughout the West, know how to quickly get the presidents of China, Russia and Turkey on the phone. When things go wrong with the coronavirus, with Ukraine or Belarus, with Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh or Libya, It is Merkel who speaks with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But is his unappealable recourse to dialogue with these autocrats really effective? Is his conciliatory and negotiation-prone character worth the fait accompli and testosterone? Can the commercial interests of the largest European economy be demarcated from the foreign policy decisions of its Executive?
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2020 was going to be the big year for Germany and China. Berlin had been carefully preparing for months its rotating presidency of the European Council, from July to December this year. The climax was to come in September, when an event was scheduled to take place in Leipzig (Germany). EU-China summit with the leaders of the 27 and the Chinese president. There, a bilateral investment protection agreement was to be signed with great pomp that would make the bloc the preferred partner of the Asian giant.
But the summit did not take place. There was hardly a video conference. The agreement was not reached either. And it seems difficult to finally reach an ambitious and consensual text by December, the deadline for Brussels. The EU has been disappointed by Beijing’s unwillingness to step forward. Europe demands reciprocity – that European companies can do in China what Chinese companies are allowed in Europe – and Beijing does not want to make that qualitative leap. The president of the European Commission (and former Merkel Defense Minister), Ursula von der Leyen, assured that China had a lot to do.
The agreement was ruined by the lack of economic progress, but the European side was seeing less and less politically digestible an agreement with China in the current context, regardless of the letter of the text. The image of Beijing has fallen whole in recent months due to political repression in Hong Kong – where it has ended judicial independence and freedom of expression – and in Xinjiang, where it is estimated that one million of members of the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority are in concentration camps. But also due to the increasing aggressiveness with Taiwan and the feeling that Beijing concealed the severity of the coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic, which made it impossible to tackle it in time. In addition, it continues to refuse international experts to travel to Wuhan for an independent investigation and has raised its financial contribution to the World Health Organization (WHO), already questioned in its impartiality, increasing doubts about its independence.
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These reasons have also led Merkel to distancing itself from China in recent months, blurring, one year after leaving power, one of the pillars of his legacy: his political and, above all, commercial approach to China. In her fifteen years at the Foreign Ministry, she has traveled to the Asian giant twelve times, always accompanied by a select group of businessmen. The chancellor has helped large transnationals such as Volkswagen, Siemens, Mercedes and BASF do multi-million dollar deals in the world’s second largest economy.
An example of this distancing is Germany’s turnaround on the thorny issue of 5G. If the German government, led by Merkel, began by defending the possibility that the Chinese Huawei participated in the deployment of this new telecommunications standard in its territory, now it is maneuvering so that, in practice, it is out of the game. After defending the importance of the free market and the need to adopt the latest technologies as soon as possible, the government’s draft of the new Telecommunications Security Law does not prevent Huawei’s participation, but it qualitatively limits it in practice. According to the economic daily ‘Handelsblatt’, the legislation provides for a technical control and a political scrutiny of each provider of critical elements of telecommunications networks.
Russia: Navalny and the Nord Stream 2
For Merkel, Putin’s Russia has always been a difficult interlocutor, but an interlocutor. The chancellor did not consider cutting off the dialogue even in 2014, when Moscow militarily annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and armed and financed a separatist guerrilla in eastern Ukraine. He supported expelling Russia from the G8 and imposing a series of sanctions from Europe that are still in force, but kept in contact. In fact, it was mainly her, although she led the then French president, François Hollande, by the hand, who a year later he brought Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to the table, to seal the Minsk Accords.
Merkel has endured a lot from Putin (perhaps more than anyone) and not only in foreign policy, where the chancellor has received rudeness and indifference from the Russian president when addressing the crises in Syria, Libya or, more recently, Belarus. Also in matters that directly affected Germany. In 2016, the Bundestag suffered a serious cyber attack that experts say was launched from Russia, but Moscow denied the biggest. And last year a Chechen ex-combatant and confidant of various Western secret services was shot in broad daylight in Berlin. The author of the shots, arrested shortly after, was a Russian agent. But for the Kremlin it was all a hoax.
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What reasons could Merkel have to put up with this behavior? On the one hand, there are historical ties of Germany and Russia, in the cultural and human. Like the relations between Spain and Morocco, they are not always simple. There is also the conviction that carrot it is always better than stick, a thesis supported by the chancellor and her government.
But there is also the mere business. The most obvious and controversial example is the Nord Stream 2. It is a gas pipeline that directly connects both countries through the Baltic Sea and that, in addition to providing cheap energy insurance for the German private sector, is an oxygen balloon for Gazprom, the Russian state gas company. The project, which is close to completion despite opposition from Washington -which has imposed extraterritorial sanctions against the companies involved- and several European partners, represents a significant financial setback for Ukraine, which according to an estimate will stop receiving 1.8 billion euros annually in passing taxes.
But Merkel’s patience seems to be over with the Navalni case. The Novichok poisoning of the Russian opposition leader has shocked the chancellor, who has demanded cooperation from Russia and a thorough and transparent investigation of what happened, because only the Russian state possesses this nerve agent. The German government has warned that the use of chemical weapons cannot be left “without consequences” and has advanced talks with its European partners for a “joint response”. It will be time to see if the Chancellor is serious and is really willing to break the deck. The suspension of the Nord Stream 2 would be a good start.
Turkey: The eastern Mediterranean and the refugee crisis
Merkel has once again bet on dialogue on the last front that has been opened to her, the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece. Ankara’s oil prospecting in disputed waters has raised the temperature in the region. Numerous warships on both sides patrol the area and the possibility that human error could unleash an armed conflict has been warned.
The chancellor has once again displayed her ability to balance here, defrauding Athens and sparking skepticism within the EU. And at the last European summit he has gotten away with it. Merkel has opted to avoid confrontation with Turkey, sacrificing the possibility of building a common European front. He has insisted that we must show “solidarity” with Greece, but at the same time seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The chancellor has not taken sides with her community partner -as other members of the bloc have done-, but has wanted to act as a mediator, sending her Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, to speak with the two parties, as if they were two alike . Equidistantes.
Behind this diplomatic effort is its interest in keeping Turkey in NATO, but also its need, for internal political reasons, for Ankara to maintain its commitment to host Turkey in its territory. refugees arriving from Syria and Iraq, preventing them from advancing towards Europe. Because Merkel doesn’t want another crisis like the one in 2015, in which she kept her country’s borders open and allowed a million people to enter, but suffered great political wear and tear and caused a deep internal crisis within the conservative German bloc (and the take off of the extreme right). That cannot be repeated. Not a year from the elections.