Germany: The Case History Of a Rogue Status-quo Power

How Berlin slowly then suddenly lost its position and influence in Europe

26 January 2023

After months of pressure from allies, Germany has finally allowed the export of tanks to Ukraine. This great hesitancy was not only representative of the current administration in Berlin, but emblematic of the German ruling elite for decades, and highlights the fundamental issues of German foreign policy; issues that have sapped Berlin of its privileged position in Europe and the world.

Olaf Scholz may want to change his ways, but it is now too late. Filmed speaking in Davos last week, the Chancellor of Germany resembled nobody so much as Romania’s President Ceausescu during that famous balcony speech in December 1989, belatedly realising that the crowd had lost patience. It is too early to gauge the effects of Scholz’s political crash, but we are surely entering a period of change for European order. This is a German Brexit – a major European power putting its domestic dogma first and turning its back on its regional and global position.

The question is how this happened.

The Ramstein Meeting and the Tallinn Pledge

Throughout the whole of last week, despite growing pressure from his European allies, Scholz refused to green-light the export of German-made Leopards from Europe to Ukraine.

This is despite the fact that just weeks earlier, he had pledged to make his country “the guarantor of European security that our allies expect us to be”. His stubbornness in Davos only confirmed the emptiness of a long line of German promises, dating right back to the 2010 sovereign debt crisis when Berlin first promised a new responsiveness and responsibility to its neighbours.

Scholz, like Angel Merkel, has found it easier not to budge and has expected European partners to respect his intransigence and applaud his small shifts. But their patience has finally ended. European governments which until recently were deferential to Germany and marginal to European affairs – Czechia, Estonia – are suddenly part of a reformist avant garde. And Germany, a country which always seemed unaware of the extent of its own authority in Europe, has allowed its power to be removed from right under its nose.

Indeed, it has barely noticed the shift. In the days since Davos, Germany has continued surreally with its usual routine, unaware of its own freefall. With President Macron, on the weekend, Scholz rolled out the pomp to celebrate their bilateral relationship and launched one of their perennial tête-à-têtes on how to reform the EU. The Netherlands and Nordics themselves appear to be only belatedly waking up to their role in surpassing Germany and joining a new axis, stretching from Poland in the east to Britain in the west – the signatories of the so-called Tallinn Pledge.

It is too early to pronounce Europe’s post-1989 order dead, but authority and influence have certainly shifted from a Franco-German coalition of two and towards Europe’s periphery and frontline, from the EU’s old south-north axis towards a new east-west axis, and above all away from the old guard in Paris and Berlin with its claims of ownership over the future of Europe and towards change-makers fed up with a complacent status quo. Much of the frustrations of the last week come down to Scholz and his particular style and personality. But he looks set to continue in post, signalling that his foot-dragging is approved by Germans and representative of Germany.

The puzzle of how Germany squandered its power in Europe

But this is not about Germany-bashing. Rather it is about addressing a puzzle – how Germany gave up an enormously privileged strategic position. Germany, since 1989, has been Europe’s status quo power par excellence.

German commercial rules knit together the EU’s markets; the EU’s institutions are a seamless continuation of Germany’s own; and Berlin is located at the geographical centre of the EU. Yet, Germany has too often taken its centrality for granted, blocking the reform and change which might have made this regional order sustainable.

One year ago, German elites still had everything – they sat in their comfy regional order within a comfy global order. One year ago, moreover, a new and reformist government came to power expressing for the first time an awareness of this privileged position. And yet, today, that “traffic light coalition” finds itself utterly almost friendless. Scholz’s government, to judge by the messages of their outriders, evidently : they feel they arrived too late to mend things. But in many ways, as we shall see, they can be held guilty of prolonging old shibboleths.

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For 30 years, Germany has been practising a kind of Realpolitik, albeit one based on almost wilful self-deception. Berlin has behaved as though the post-1989 global order was natural and sustainable and that its stability was based on the quasi-automatic redistribution of benefits to all participants. According to one well-known formulation, this encouraged Germany to outsource its energy needs to Russia, security needs to the US and economic needs to China. It was a cynical and self-deluding form of great power politics, and the collapse of that global order since February has been well-detailed.

This essay tells the other part of the story – how Germany squandered its place in the post-1989 European order. At the heart of this story is the same kind of Realpolitik – or rather Unrealpolitik, the coercive and passive-aggressive ways Germany has disciplined small and peripheral European states, imposing its standards on them in pursuit of its material interests, and all the while convincing itself that it was not exercising power and that its cosy position was somehow natural, deserved and in the mutual benefit.

Russia buried the global order in February. But Germany’s comfy regional order showed signs of mortality only last week. And the coup de grace, if it was one, was delivered not by Russian aggression (which, in fact, had looked set to solidify EU unity and German power) but rather by an axis of Germany’s closest neighbours and allies.

Germans may now complain about being turned into Europe’s whipping boy; indeed, they are puzzled not to be congratulated by their neighbours for holding firm on the export of Leopards until the US agreed to send Abrams tanks. But they invited this unsympathetic treatment by alienating their neighbours over a period of two decades, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the need to reach out beyond a core of Western European partners when thinking about the future of Europe.

Germany came to view European reformers as a threat

German elites may have blind spots regarding their own country’s behaviour as a status quo power, but they are good at pointing out the faults of others, most obviously the United States, the other great beneficiary of the post-1989 order. Speak with officials here in Berlin, and it is noticeable how many are critical of the US’s recent positioning in a “battle of autocracies versus democracies”. They accuse Washington of constructing a threat from China in order to force Germany to line up behind it and defend American privilege. They also say American fear-mongering will be self-fulfilling.

But press these diplomats and politicians further, and it turns out that what really makes many of them cross is that Germany itself has no China – no peer competitor to mobilise its society and make the defence of its own regional status quo an unimpeachable cause. For most German voters, Russia is still not viewed as an enemy. And China itself unleashes only “automotive angst”, causing Germans to fret about their prowess in precision engineering. So what to do to create a moral case for its inertia?

In the absence of a “China” to justify the protection of the status quo, German elites have tended to degrade those countries pushing for uncomfortable reforms to European order, viewing them as corrupt or populist, fringe states like Poland and Turkey. Their blacklisting made change and reform in Europe appear an invalid option and too often made the threat self-fulfilling. It is a story best told in relation to the suite of crises which have hit Europe every five years since 2005, when French voters rejected the EU Constitutional Treaty, and which were characterised by heavy pressure on Germany to change Europe.

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During this suite of European crises, Germany treated reformers in the rest of the EU as a threat because they challenged the status quo. It has been a phase in which Germany certainly recognised that its form of international order is not sustainable and that it needs to grow up. But it also lost the ability to differentiate reformist from revanchist, disruption from threat, critic from enemy. Its refusal to change in a properly inclusive way has alienated partners with a legitimate claim to reform – from Donald Tusk’s Poland to David Cameron’s UK (and perhaps even Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orbán, would-be liberals turned sour by its undelivered promises).

2004 is the real inflexion point in the story – the date of the EU’s big-bang enlargement, in which Malta, Cyprus and the eight Central and Eastern European countries joined the EU, and the point when Germany should have started the hard work of accommodating newcomers who had diligently taken on the EU’s rulebook. Instead, Germany largely shirked the task in favour of protecting the existing institutions and deepening the old rulebook. Rather than including the newcomers, Germany declared the job done and maintained a situation of tutelage towards the new states, preferring to cling to its old partner France.

Germany treated crisis as an opportunity for more of the same

Germany failed to devolve power in Europe over a decade in which international forces ravaged the EU’s expanding periphery. Berlin was not blind to these strains, of course – it was acutely aware of the centrifugal effects exerted during the 2010 financial crisis or the 2020 pandemic, and it proclaimed a readiness for leadership and a strategic awakening. But the resulting mix of Germany First and paternalistic protectionism has alienated EU partners clamouring for sympathetic change. Take, as an example, the 2015 migration crisis and its aftermath.

A couple of months ago, an official report into abuses of power by the EU borders agency, Frontex, reached the public domain. This grabbed headlines – even amidst the Russian War – because the EU was now struggling to build bridges with states like Turkey just beyond the Schengen border and with countries of migrant origin in the Global South, but also because it was the episode during which the Visegrad states, now on the EU’s front-line, emerged as a spoiler group.

The episode neatly encapsulates how Germany continues to disassociate itself from the effects of its own power. The report accuses the head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, of an abusive work culture, corrupt business practices and dirty compromises with the border states which hosted it.

Here in Berlin, pro-Europeans continue to express shock and outrage at the report, speaking of a “rogue” European agency, a cuckoo in the nest of the EU’s rules-based order and blaming its perversion on the Visegrad Four. But in truth Leggeri’s Frontex was very much a German creation.

It was, after all, Germany that turned Frontex into a super-agency, the protector of the rule of law in Europe: Germany in 2015 was still stinging from the criticism that it had behaved in an anti-European way in 2010 towards eurozone states like Italy and France. As migration numbers rose, it took a protective attitude towards the southern EU members, attempting to get non-EU members like North Macedonia, Albania or Turkey to protect them. This was justified because Schengen embodied the “rules-based international order”, and irregular migrants and criminals would threaten the rule of law if they were permitted to simply waltz into the EU. Frontex was given the mission of protecting that precious rules-based order by any means necessary.

The Visegrad states may not have been on the frontline of the migration crisis, but they still felt exposed: Poland, in particular, had lost faith in EU norms during the eurozone crisis. But Warsaw’s attempts back then to change the rules had been rebuffed. Germany had treated the financial crisis as an excuse for more of the same, an opportunity to push through eurozone policies that previously were blocked. Faced now with a renewed crisis of German norms, the Visegrad Four preferred the spoiler role and, in turn, justified Germany’s high-handed protection of the status quo.

How Germany fell prey to French protectionism

Frontex’s subsequent collapse thus shows how Germany struggles to see the effects of its own attempts to assert the status quo. But it also highlights clearly what might have been an alternative, more inclusive path not taken. Frontex was founded back in 2004 as part of the EU’s enlargement. And back then, it was a very different organisation – designed, in fact, to challenge the Western status quo. Leggeri’s later role, and Frontex’s sad demise, show how the Germans have become increasingly susceptible to protectionism over reform.

The founding spirit of Frontex had been very different: inclusive, inventive, modest. In 2005, Frontex was headed by a Finn and a Spaniard – a very deliberate choice by the member states, who correctly recognised that the high-tech, high-volume air borders of Frankfurt, CDG and Schiphol were no model for a Schengen about to expand deep into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Frontex would need to learn to deal with tricky land and sea borders, and few were trickier than Spain’s border with Morocco or Finland’s border with Russia.

Under their guidance, Frontex began picking and mixing practices from the EU’s new member states and developing its own model of “networked border management”, which it started spreading abroad – not because it believed its approach was best but rather to help West Africa or Latin America to safely repeat the Schengen experiment for themselves, and to ensure Frontex officials could share information with other countries.

Compare the Frontex of 2005 to that which emerged in late 2015. Leggeri, newly appointed as a result of a Franco-German deal, began using blunt leverage to assert the EU’s immigration rules, cajoling states like North Macedonia to host EU border guards on their territory, armed with pistols and diplomatic immunity. Paris, scarred by its own treatment by the Germans in the sovereign debt crisis, had effectively redirected German suspicions towards states outside the old core of the EU, and Frontex was its tool.

Within months Frontex had tense relations not only with non-EU states like Turkey, Morocco and Serbia but also with precisely the member states that it had been set up to accommodate – Poland or Malta. Berlin now put an end to Frontex’s “networked diplomacy” – or what it suspiciously called the “old boys network” of border guards. Germany’s new muscular approach to European order was encapsulated by the EU-Turkey deal, brokered by Chancellor Merkel and egged on by a France which felt Germany had been naive about international relations and was keen to see it become engaged “politically on a global scale”.

Berlin’s false foreign policy awakening

The seeds of German mistrust towards states outside a Western core had, in fact, been there all along. German officials had, for instance, insisted that Frontex be located in Warsaw. This was not so as to learn from Polish professionals about the Eastern flank but rather about keeping an eye on a country which Germany struggled to treat as an equal. The German interior ministry feared that Polish corruption could expose Germany to mass migration and the Russian mafia to toxic waste and decommissioned weapons.

Frontex’s DNA thus comprised a kind of civilizational mission (one reason why Poland resisted formalising the hosting arrangement for a decade). But it was not until 2015 that German officials felt that their suspicions were confirmed – the EU had over-extended. The German government came to believe that every time the EU had lifted borders, it exposed Germany uniquely to the dark side of globalisation – to those intent on exploiting its Gutmütigkeit – migrants and criminal gangs, “backsliding” governments inside the EU, and countries like Turkey or Serbia that exploit its openness.

Such cross-border vulnerabilities were, of course, precisely what Frontex was the master of managing. Its style of networked diplomacy – linking up security professionals all along a route – was based on the understanding that border guards were united by shared goals but also vulnerabilities. In 2015, Frontex’s analysts were able to show that the EU’s neighbours were bluffing about “opening the floodgates” – they were making the threat only because they feared the EU pulling up the drawbridge and in order to keep EU skin in the game, but in fact had too much to lose if they did open their borders.

Under the Frenchman Leggeri, however, the agency’s advice began to shift. Whereas his predecessors had carefully managed political expectations in Germany, telling Berlin that migration control required long-term sympathetic diplomacy, Leggeri inflated expectations, intimating that it was possible to cut off irregular migration – within the rules – if only enough resources were made available. The EU-Turkey deal seemed to prove the point, but it was an illusion: News of the deal had generated an artificial spike in Syrians crossing the Aegean, which dropped on the day of its application.

No matter: the EU-Turkey deal was a taboo-busting experience for Berlin and provided the template for the German model of “principled foreign policy”, and helped nourish ideas such as The Brussels Effect – the myth that the EU stands alone in a hostile international environment and has a duty to unilaterally regulate globalisation. The real result of the Brussels Effect has been to tie the EU in outdated red tape, cut it off from its neighbours and dent its capacity to create norms and products that the rest of the world willingly adopts (in other words, to compete with the TikTok Effect). The deal provided Berlin with a moral cause – to shamelessly protect an outdated and Germano-centric order, and spread Europe’s norms by coercion rather than the power of attraction.

Germany exacerbates the threats to the status quo

Scholz’s Germany is stuck in a vicious cycle. When it came to power a little over a year ago, it believed that it had achieved a sense of clarity about its international responsibilities that had eluded its predecessors. Germany needed to take leadership in the EU and learn to exercise coercive power. This was the message that France had been giving Germany for years, and in its coalition agreement, the new “traffic light” government adopted President Macron’s agenda and language. But precisely this creates the threats and challenges to European order that it is meant to thwart.

Germany’s sense of a mission to protect the European “rules-based order” – too often the rules and practices that suit the Franco-German couple – has swelled the ranks of spoilers in and around Europe, and this results in a growing sense of vulnerability in Berlin itself. Turkey is a good example of this self-fulfilling threat perception: The old Frontex leadership was correct back in 2015 that Turkey was not in a position to blackmail the EU by “opening the floodgates”, but now it is – and that is thanks precisely to the EU-Turkey deal.

Athens, which was not consulted about the deal, is too proud to make use of the arrangement with Ankara and send refugees back to Turkey, but it is also too canny to remove refugees permanently from the terms of the deal and send them to mainland Greece. Consequently, Turkey can destabilise the EU without risking its own borders – it only has to send a few hundred migrants to the overfilled refugee camps in Lesbos to create a European crisis.

This is not the only example of how Germany has damaged Europe’s security and surrounded itself with spoilers. Germany wanted Frontex to become a 10,000-strong border force, and the agency has subsequently recruited from states like Bulgaria or Portugal, uprooting guards from their locality, training them in German standards and then trying to send them home again. Front-line states have rejected these “Stepford guards” and persuaded Germany that they should be deployed outside the EU instead. The EU now does the wrong things in the wrong places.

The German drive to create a “safety ring” around the EU has benefited only two camps – local autocrats, who are happy to host European security forces in return for diplomatic recognition and sanctions relief, and the local smugglers who have learned to cross the borders that Germany built. Berlin’s resort to transactionalism and leverage means that it is surrounded by protection rackets.  Germany exclaims with surprise that an “arc of instability” has popped up around the EU, finding itself mysteriously surrounded by weakened EU partners, hostile neighbouring states like Turkey and criminal gangs offering access to Germany.

Germany is trying to achieve strategic clarity in a hall of mirrors

Germany’s new generation of leaders is seeking strategic clarity in a hall of mirrors, one that disassociates Germany from the effects of its own power and presents itself as the innocent victim of European countries that have inexplicably become spoilers, rivals and critics in an EU inexplicably surrounded by a hostile “ring of fire”.

That readiness to disassociate itself from its own power applies in particular to the greatest reformers in this government, the Greens and Liberals. The emergence of the Frankenstein-Frontex is again a good example of this phenomenon.

Greens and Liberals say they bear no responsibility for Frontex – they opposed Merkel’s policies in the European Parliament and via the EU’s other constitutional checks and balances. But what the Germans see as their use of healthy European checks and balances is really just Germany’s domination of all branches of the EU’s institutional architecture. During the Merkel years, the Greens and Liberals in Brussels merely amplified the peculiar German conversation about the need for “principled foreign policy”.

Germany lacks the shameless moral clarity of France, the US or the UK – the belief that its own interests are the best and most beneficial for mankind. But this notion of a “principled form of foreign policy” – this protection of the status-quo-cum-“rules-based international order” – has given Berlin the sense that it holds the moral high ground when in fact it is just protecting a cosy regional order formed in its image. With the “Brussels Effect”, it has supersized that mix of Germany First and euro-protectionism seen during the covid crisis when Germany used the EU’s geo-economic power to push to the front of the global vaccine queue. German politicians have justified trampling over other parts of the world in a global crisis because only a show of EU assertiveness will prevent populist governments from gaining ground. Safeguarding Europe’s precious rules-based order is the highest imperative.

Germany’s behaviour is alienating precisely the groups that the West needs to reach out to in its rivalry with Russia and China.

In the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Germany believes that the EU’s rules are what make it attractive. In fact, these rules define a status quo in Europe that cannot be sustained. What makes Europe attractive is its capacity for change – to come up with forms of governance and cooperation that transform traditional international problems. This attribute, at present, is sorely lacking. And Germany is finding itself on the wrong side of history. Increasingly, Central and Eastern Europeans suspect that Berlin does not want a Ukrainian victory because this would have system-changing effects and Germany, the status-quo power, cannot accept that.

But change is in the air.




Featured image: “Olaf Scholz, Vice-Chancellor and Federal” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by oscepa

Roderick Parkes

Dr Roderick Parkes heads the Europe programme at the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. A British national, he has worked in government-affiliated think tanks across Europe, most recently the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris.

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