After Merkel, Germany is searching for a new role in the world

Its incoming coalition government's choices will have major consequences, at home and abroad

A new coalition government is set to take power in Germany, after 16 years of Angela Merkel at the helm. Getty

Germans crave reassurance but they also demand change. They know that in domestic and foreign policies the country cannot have both. Such is the dilemma for the incoming three-party coalition under Olaf Scholz, which takes office next week.

These should be exciting, optimistic times. Even if the new government introduces a fraction of what is promised in the coalition agreement, the country is set for significant change. Modernisation is the watchword.

Yet everywhere they look, Germans feel anxious. Angela Merkel's departure inevitably removes a comfort blanket.

If the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Greens and Free Democratic Party special conventions ratify the coalition treaty, the new government will take the reins within days.

There have been positive signs from the weeks-long negotiations to form the so-called traffic light team after September's election.

The red, yellow and green parties hammered out the coalition deal in two months with singlemindedness and discretion, keeping the tough negotiations to themselves. They have pledged not to allow disagreements to result in fudges. Some of those divisions are deep and long-standing.

Since 1945, Germans have had an expectation of a better future, which was reinforced after reunification in 1990. Now it could be argued that the challenge facing Germany is greater than that facing other countries. Germans see all that they have held dear since the end of the Second World War is under threat.

They have watched Brexit and Britain’s post-departure petulance with disbelief. They work from the assumption that in the US Joe Biden is only keeping the seat warm and that Donald Trump, or someone like him, will return to the White House in January 2025.

They see a world in which democracy is openly mocked by populists. They see a confident China buying up strategic economic interests and putting nationalist self-interest to work from Hong Kong to Africa. They see Russia overseeing cyber disruption on a grand scale and seeing off or imprisoning opposition figures.

Departing German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives a bouquet from Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, left, before a cabinet meeting in Berlin. AP

Mrs Merkel’s response to the many crises she faced was to regard foreign affairs as firefighting. When Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, she led the EU in imposing sanctions. That was the high-water mark of her decisiveness. Since then, every time Russian president Vladimir Putin overstepped the mark, she chose a quiet word in his ear.

The same has gone for President Xi Jinping, with her annual trips to Beijing as German industry’s saleswoman-in-chief.

Yet even though she ducked many big problems, Mrs Merkel will be treated kindly by historians because of who she was – and who she was not. In the face of demagoguery, she chose deliberation.

The coalition agreement hints at a tougher approach to Russia and China. References are made to the interests of Ukraine and Taiwan.

Annalena Baerbock, the Greens foreign minister in waiting, pledged a return to an "active European foreign policy, based on diplomacy and dialogue and driven by values and human rights".

Her party has, surprisingly for its pacifist traditions, been the most hawkish in the Bundestag, pushing for tougher sanctions against human rights abusers.

Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats, by contrast, have long-standing close relations with Russia and more generally take what they would call a pragmatic view of international relations.

One of the first decisions will be whether, finally, to press the button on Nordstream-2, the pipeline that will pump gas to Germany and Western Europe.

It has been put on hold for "technical" reasons. The Greens want to stop it. The SPD, whose last chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, was one of the originators of the project, are determined to proceed.

If it does go ahead, the US will want payback in a number of areas, not least China. Mr Biden was infuriated by a draft EU trade agreement with China that was published days before he took office. He wants that deal scrapped.

To demonstrate the new government’s transatlantic credentials, considerable play is made in the coalition document of Germany’s links to Nato. The US and France are portrayed as the country’s closest partners. Britain is afforded a cursory sentence.

Yet the new government has also said it will take part, as an observer, to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Both SPD and Greens had pledged as much in their election manifestos. Even if this is little more than gesture politics to both parties’ left flanks, it will unnerve the US and other partners.

As it focuses more on China and Asia, the US is looking not just for loyalty from Germany; it is also looking towards it and other major European countries to take more responsibility, and to pay more, for their defence. Don’t rely on us in perpetuity has been the consistent message from Barack Obama to Mr Trump to Mr Biden.

In the 2017 election campaign, even the ever-cautious Mrs Merkel sought to prepare voters for a world without the American umbrella.

Emmanuel Macron – assuming he sees off the far-right challenge in France’s presidential elections next year – will make the case more strongly than before for strategic autonomy, giving Europe a more distinctive voice in global affairs. Mrs Merkel was wary.

Mr Macron is likely to gain a more sympathetic ear from Mr Scholz. At the heart of the French vision is a closer Europe, with more economic and foreign policy cohesion. They will encounter stiff opposition to those plans from the new centres of Euroscepticism – Hungary and Poland.

The new generation of German politicians can see that across the world change is already in view, in priorities and structures. The advent of the Quad in the Asia-Pacific region (grouping the US with Japan, India and Australia) is the clearest example yet of a post-post-1945 settlement, of coalitions of the willing being assembled alongside existing institutions.

Perhaps the strongest of all German characteristics is risk aversion. Yet politicians and policy makers know the old world is not coming back and that Mrs Merkel merely tried to slow the process.

Mr Scholz and Ms Baerbock will have an early opportunity to set out their stall when Germany assumes the presidency of the G7 in January. The delphic Mr Scholz won the election by saying little of note, allowing the others to make mistakes.

In this and in much else, he is seeking to emulate Mrs Merkel. She could afford to be taciturn. Years in office had given her a quiet authority on the global stage.

He will not be able to command the room in the way that she did, at least not for a while, but those who know Mr Scholz well say that he should not be underestimated. He has a certain steel in his eyes. Those first interactions with the likes of Mr Putin and Mr Xi will be eagerly watched.

Published: December 1st 2021, 1:10 PM
Updated: December 2nd 2021, 1:13 PM
John Kampfner

John Kampfner

John Kampfner is the author of 'Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country'