In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Dr Nicole Koenig, Head of Policy at the Munich Security Conference. They talk about German strategy towards the war in Ukraine, a shift in the defense policy, the future of EU enlargement and strategic autonomy, and how Germans perceive Zeitenwende.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What Zeitenwende really is and how does it affect German policy?
Nicole Koenig (NK): Zeitenwende actually describes a turning point in global politics, rather than in German policy itself. The term stems from the speech by Chancellor Olaf Scholz given in Bundestag only three days after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He said that what we are seeing right now with the Russian aggression is a Zeitenwende. This turning point also requires a change in the way of thinking and acting in German foreign and security policy.
As Chancellor Scholz explained what the part of that change is may be seen as revolutionary for German foreign policy. We could see a shift in two guiding principles. The first one is the idea of a positive view on economic interdependence – the so-called ‘Wandel durch Handel’ (change through trade). According to this principle, economic interdependence would allow for liberalization – be it of Russia or China. We saw, of course, that this policy has failed. The biggest change that we could observe right after the invasion in this area was the freezing of the Nord Stream pipeline.
The second key principle that is, in a way, broken was German long-standing tradition of military restraint. This approach has historical roots. This was manifested in reluctance to send weapons to the conflict zones, which had been a leitmotif of the German foreign policy in the last decades. However, after many debates that occurred before the full-scale invasion, Germany finally also decided to send weapons to Ukraine. In fact, now, Germany is the leading country in Europe in terms of military assistance to Ukraine.
On the other hand, another key topic for debate in Germany is the 2% defense spending, which was one of the central elements in Chancellor Scholz’s speech. There is a promise to spend 2% of GDP annually on defense from now on. So far, it has not yet been entirely kept. However, in the meantime, Germany did decide to establish a special fund for defense in order to fulfill the promise. We will probably see it fulfilled in the next 2-3 years.
LJ: Why was this approach adopted? And why has it been heavily criticized?
NK: When we heard the speech, many of us in Berlin were surprised by the strong statements and promises. What we saw in the months following the speech was quite a lot of criticism of Germany not keeping its promise. It took two months to put these words into practice and have the Bundestag to approve sending weapons (including heavy weapons) to Ukraine. There was a long debate on whether Germany should send heavy Leopard tanks. Therefore, there was an impression that Germany was drawing red lines. In polls, we could see that the public opinion was divided when it came to heavy weapons.
There was a true fear of escalation. This is one thing that the Chancellor has always mentioned in his speeches. He stated that on the one hand, we need to support Ukraine, but, on the other hand, we need to try to avoid escalation given the nuclear threat of Russia and so Germany should proceed with caution. This stance frustrated external partners, including the United States, as it is not what you would expect in terms of leadership.
LJ: What strategy is Chancellor Scholz currently pursuing with regard to the war in Ukraine?
NK: There is still fear of escalation. At the Munich Conference, earlier this year, the then new Defense Minister, Boris Pistorius, said that Ukraine must win this war. The hesitancy stems likely from the fact that there are different interpretations and opinions of what this victory (or defeat) would mean.
The strategy did not change – a dual approach is in place. It is to support Ukraine as much as possible (including providing military, economic, and financial support) to allow it to defend itself and be in a better position once negotiations and a ceasefire happen. At the same time, further escalation (including nuclear) needs to be prevented. This dual approach could be seen at the NATO Summit in Vilnius, where there was a more concrete invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance on the one hand, but, on the other hand, there was a declaration from the G7 to meet their long-term security commitments.
LJ: From the German perspective, in light of the war in Ukraine, has the concept of strategic autonomy become obsolete?
NK: Strategic autonomy has never been a very German concept. It has been much more driven by the French – especially by President Emmanuel Macron. In Germany, what politicians much preferred was the notion of ‘strategic sovereignty’, because it is considered to be less toxic, as in terms of defense, ‘autonomy’ is often interpreted as the autonomy from the United States. This is why in German discourse we hear more about strategic ‘sovereignty’ – this term also appears in the coalition treaty.
However, to be quite honest, since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, we have not heard that much even about strategic sovereignty in the German debate. The reason is that Germans are very much of aware of how dependent we still are, as Europeans, on the support of the United States – in terms of nuclear, the NATO, or their significant military assistance to Ukraine (which is 1/3 higher than that of the whole Europe combined).
Therefore, when talking about strategic sovereignty from the German perspective, we are somewhat afraid of suggesting any ‘decoupling’ at a time when unity in the transatlantic relationship is most needed. This is why we have not heard much about it. Traditionally, in the German debate as well as in the National Security Strategy, the idea of a European NATO is more prominent.
LJ: What has changed when it comes to the National Security Strategy?
NK: It is worth mentioning that this is the first National Security Strategy that Germany has. It is a result of a very comprehensive negotiations in different ministries, which is important because the theme and the title of the Strategy is integrated in security. It takes stock of everything that happened since the Zeitenwende and clearly identifies Russia as a key threat, which would not have happened before.
What is also interesting from my point of view is that there is a real shift in terms of the understanding of economic security. Before, there was a division between foreign policy and economic issues, which was an artificial separation. This is now in the past. Now we are striving to reduce the risks and critical vulnerabilities of the economic sector – be it in relation to Russia or China. This approach is a direct consequence of the Russian war in Ukraine.
LJ: How have the relations between Germany and China change given the recent lessons from the Russian aggression? Is there any significant shift?
NK: The shift is rather gradual in nature. The National Security Strategy is based on a triptych that we can also see reflected in the European Union, according to which China is a cooperation partner, an economic competitor, and a strategic rival.
Apart from the National Security Strategy, there is also Germany’s Strategy on China, which puts emphasis on seeking a European approach to China and the idea of de-risking. ‘De-risking’ sounds very good, it is a notion put forward by Ursula von der Leyen. The question is to what extent?
LJ: What is the approach toward EU enlargement in Germany at the moment?
NK: Germany has always been a proponent of enlargement to the Western Balkans, which is now an ongoing process. When it comes to Moldova and Ukraine, after the start of the invasion, there was still a lot of hesitancy in Berlin. I was, actually, surprised how quickly this has shifted into a common messaging at the European level about granting these states the candidate status.
There has been a change in the perspective on enlargement. Germany started viewing it from a more strategic and geopolitical point of view. However, at the same time, there is also keen awareness in Germany about the internal side of process and acknowledgement that we need to prepare the European Union for further enlargement. The key word that is often mentioned in this context is the ‘absorption capacity’, which relates to several areas – including the EU budget.
We know that if all of these countries (particularly Ukraine) would join the EU, we would have a very large new member state, which is relatively poor but has a huge agricultural sector. The accession of Ukraine would, for example, lead to a change of the balance sheet in terms of the net pay and net recipients. Moreover, another aspect that is linked to the enlargement and is very prominent in Germany is the question of how we prepare for a larger EU and how do we adapt decision-making procedures (do we need to move away from unanimous voting in foreign and tax policy?). These questions, along with the obvious security question, need to be answered.
At the moment, we do have an accession perspective to the European Union, but there is no clear-cut accession path to the NATO. So, what if Ukraine joins the EU but not the NATO? And what does this mean for the mutual assistance clause in the EU treaties? A lot of these questions are linked. As pointed out by Germany and France, we need to combine the debate on enlargement with that on the reform of the European Union. This is why, at the moment, we see Franco-German experts working together on proposing concrete steps.
LJ: How does Berlin envision changes in defense and foreign policy – also in light of the views of the public opinion in Germany?
NK: There are some divisions among the German population – for instance, in terms of delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. There will be such divisions also in the future – including in relation to defense spending. The defense fund will not last forever. We will only be able to reach the 2% of the annual GDP with it until 2026. As for 2027, the question will be up for debate again.
At the moment, with the military invasion of Ukraine, there is a lot of support in Germany for helping Ukraine – including among the society. However, it is uncertain whether it will still be there, if other competing priorities occur (such as spending on infrastructure or social projects). Therefore, it is extremely important to involve the population in the debate in Germany, even though they would have a lot of catching up.
In the past, politicians often refrained from starting a big debate on security policy, because it was not very popular. It is very different here than in other countries – such as France, where when the president acts like a crisis manager abroad, he observes a boost in his popularity. In Germany, it is not the case. So, to a large extent, the debate has been held too much behind the closed doors.
This is why initiatives such as the Zeitenwende on Tour campaign is so important. We bring politicians and decision-makers into different rooms, often in remote places, and invite regular citizens to ask whatever questions they have and enter an interactive dialogue on Zeitenwende. This helps us learn what the citizens are really concerned about and allows to respond adequately. The strategic shift that we have observed in the last few years in Germany can only last if we take along the citizens on this journey.
LJ: What will be the future of Zeitenwende? Is it a one-way ticket for Germany, which would force the country to continue on this strategic path?
NK: There has been a notable shift in strategy and spending so far. However, a lot depends on what happens in Ukraine and whether there will be a ceasefire. This would impact how present the issue will be in German news – which, in turn, will impact how it affects the German population. Another key factor is a political one in nature.
At the moment, Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s far-right party, is on the rise. Even though this is not necessarily directly related to the war – the reasons are mostly immigration, which has been a key topic for the party, along with the climate issues – still, in polls, the AfD receives above 20% of support (while in eastern German states, this percentage is even higher). The party has a different approach and is much more friendly toward Russia than the centrist parties. This trend could change until the next election, of course, but at the moment it is an important factor that will contribute to how Zeitenwende will be contested at the domestic level.
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.