Political Situation in Germany Before the European Elections with Ralf Fücks [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

What does the political situation in Germany look like before the European elections? What is Germany’s attitude to the Russian war in Ukraine? And how are the green and liberal parties faring? Leszek Jazdzewski (Fundacja Liberte!) talks with Ralf Fücks, Managing Director of the Center for Liberal Modernity, following his 21 years as President of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the political foundation associated with the Greens. Before that, he was the Co-Chair of the German Green Party (1989/​90) and the Senator of Environment and City Development in Bremen.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): It seems like Germany is not taking the leadership position on the Russian war in Ukraine. Do you think that German position in this regard is not evolving in the right direction? Can you please explain this situation?

RF: To make a long story short, we should acknowledge that the German government with its ‘traffic light coalition’ (consisting of social democrats, liberals, and the Greens) really moved a lot since the beginning of the full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago compared to the previous German position. During the Merkel years, Germany refused to arm Ukraine at all. The prevalent narrative was that this conflict cannot be solved militarily and, therefore, arms would only heat up the situation and increase the risk of escalation. Germany played a decisive role in refusing Ukraine’s accession to NATO at the Bucharest summit.

Even after 2014, with the first wave of Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Germany continued its policy of a special relationship with Russia – not only in the area of economic cooperation, especially in terms of energy, as Russia was seen as a German industry with cheap Russian fossil fuels (gas, oil, and even coal), but also politically, as there was a constant state of illusion in Germany that Putin could be brought to reason while Russia made into a reliable partner in European politics. The dominant perception and policy was that there is no peace and security without Russia.

It was since February 2022 that we saw a real change. Still, however, the policies of Donald Trump in the United States and of the German Chancellor caught up too late and fell into a trap. The move to start delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine, armed combat vehicles, and tanks was very hesitant and took many months of back-and-forth discussions. Finally, the decision was made, but still allowed for rather limited support. It is true that the overall support for Ukraine in Germany, including financial, technical, and humanitarian aid ranks in the second place (after the United States). However, one must remember that we are the second biggest economy in the West.

Recently, the Chancellor made a definite decision not to deliver Taurus, long-range cruise missiles, which are quite a powerful weapon that would allow Ukraine to attack the Russian military infrastructure, the logistics of the Russian army, and to interrupt military supply via Crimea. My reading of this decision is that Chancellor Scholz does not want to deliver Taurus to Ukraine because it is such a powerful weapon – because since the beginning of the war, his highest priority was first of all not to get Germany involved in that war in any way.

Now, he is constantly repeating ‘I am the guarantor of Germany not becoming a party in the war and not pushing Russia to the brink of a military defeat’. The reason for that is the fact that the Chancellor is really afraid that if Russia is in danger of losing the war, it will do something horrible. Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons or further escalate the war if they are pushed to where they will have their back against the wall. This is why we hear this often-repeated formula: ‘Ukraine, of course, should not lose’. We can take it for granted that Scholz does not want Ukraine to lose the war. Russia must not win. However, he never made a clear statement that Ukraine should win whereas Russia has to lose the war.

This is still the defining framework of German politics. What makes things worse is that now, Scholz and the Social Democrats are using the deep-rooted German fear of war as an electoral tool.

It is clear that Chancellor Scholz and the Social Democrats will protect Germany from getting involved in this war. This approach is a reference to the German experience, especially in the Second World War, which Germany started. This war destroyed large parts of Europe and brought about horrible war crimes (the Holocaust). Eventually, the war came back to Germany with the bombardments, the destruction of German cities, and led to 6 million deaths and 11 billion refugees. This is the reason why Germany never again wants to experience war. This sentiment is deeply embedded in the German collective memory and the German political mindset.

Now, Chancellor Scholz is exploiting that attitude to defend his restrictive policy toward supporting Ukraine. The tragedy of this policy is that it actually increases the risk of an all-European war. Because if we, the democratic West, do not stop Putin in Ukraine or will not help the Ukrainians to win that war, the probability that Putin goes further and then tests NATO in the Baltics or even starts a hybrid warfare against Poland or other Central Eastern European countries will rise.

Therefore, the policy which says that Russia must not lose the war is putting European and German security at risk. It not only does not secure peace, but it also endangers our security. Nonetheless, it will be very difficult to convince Chancellor Scholz to change his mind and declare a more decisive support for Ukraine. The only chance is that there will be a coalition of other European countries and governments, which would put collective pressure on Berlin.

LJ: You are absolutely right that this combination of ‘Russia not losing’ actually means that Russia would expand. It should be very obvious to everyone in Europe right now.

RF: Indeed, but meanwhile, there is still a constant denial in Germany. Also, Chancellor Scholz speaks about Russian neo-imperialism from time to time, which is really a new tone and a new language for German politics. However, he still does not take it seriously. Germany still thinks that the Putin regime would be satisfied with some territorial gains in Ukraine – that by getting the Donbas under the Russian rule, and maybe the southeast part of Ukraine as a bridge to Crimea, they would stop.

They are still underestimating these very dangerous brews of German schism, restoring the Russian empire, nationalism, and militarism in Russia in combination with a more and more totalitarian turn of the regime. And that this kind of a regime cannot be appeased. Because it is about appeasement. We can only try to deter them, and so we need a very firm and determined answer from the West to stop it before it is too late. And for Germany, this is still a very strange way of seeing the world.

For a very long time, the German foreign and security policy mindset was that every conflict can be resolved by diplomacy, dialogue, compromise, and money. But now, antagonistic conflicts are back. Now we are back in a systemic conflict between liberal democracies and authoritarian powers. And this still has not really sunk in in the German politics.

LJ: Why does it seem that most of the parties in the German government have lost popularity, including the liberals? Is it because of the position towards the Russian war in Ukraine? Or maybe because of the economy or migration? Can you tell us more about the dynamics of the German politics?

RF: The German political landscape is now rapidly changing. We could say that it is a kind of a European standard now also coming to Germany – with strong right-wing populist parties gaining momentum. If we look at Scandinavia or countries like Italy or France, we are experiencing the rise of right-wing populist and mostly pro-Putin parties all around Europe. (Interestingly, Meloni in Italy is different, and I hope she will stay the course.) This phenomenon is mainly about a crisis of trust in the ability of democratic parties and institutions to deal with the huge challenges our societies are facing.

We live in the times of global migration, digitalization, and gender revolution. A very deep change is going on in gender relations, our family patterns, ideas of sexuality, and understanding that there are more than two sexes. All these cultural, economic, and technological changes are creating unrest and a feeling of insecurity in our societies. These changes also usually also go along with social polarization. You have winners and losers of this modernization on speed. This is the soil for the rise of the right-wing parties, but they are successful only whenever democratic policy is not delivering.

People have the impression that the democratic institutions are not ready or able to find solutions to these societal and economic challenges. The most important answer is to strengthen our ability to act. This also includes dealing with the external challenges we are facing – the challenge posed by the authoritarian powers, such as China, Russia, Iran, and others who are attacking the international liberal order. In almost all these aspects, you see democracies in defense.

We are trying to defend our position and interests, but we do not really have the power to bring about a change. Therefore, security in times of a turbulent change is one of the major challenges democracies are facing. Especially for the Greens, if we have a closer look at the Green Party in Germany, who two years ago seemed to be unstoppable. At the height of their popularity, with the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats in the picture, even the chance of a Green Chancellor in Germany seemed to be real. Now, however, they observe a decline in public popularity – and not because of their position toward Russia and the war in Ukraine, because majority of the German population and a vast majority of the Green constituency still supports very robust and determined policy supporting Ukraine and confronting Russia.

Interestingly, the Greens, which in the past were in the most pacifistic and anti-NATO club, are now on the forefront of defending European security and democracy against Russia. But there are other areas – especially climate, energy policy, and migration – where the old concepts of the Greens are now hitting the wall of reality. Therefore, the Greens have to adapt their program and their political strategies to the existential crisis. They are in a very difficult position within the government coalition. If they stay in, they are criticized from parts of their constituency that they are supporting Social Democrat and Christian Democrat policies. If they leave the government, it will also pose a lethal risk for them. They are hovering around the 5% threshold, which places them in a strategic trap.

Unfortunately, it is not really clear what the contemporary liberal agenda in Germany really is – beyond defending the debt break or a more restrictive fiscal policy. We do not know what the liberal answer to the big challenges of our time is – to climate change, migration, and digitalization. It has become unclear what liberals stand for. This is the main problem.

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.

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