Are Germans turning their backs on Central and Eastern Europe?

29.08.2018 | By Michał Kuź

Recent actions of the German government paint a clear picture – Berlin is engaging in some form of partnership with Moscow in opposition to the politics of Donald Trump. Sadly, this happens at the expense of the interests of Central and Eastern Europe and erodes European solidarity. Angela Merkel must answer the following questions: is it better to deal with a democracy, which the United States undoubtedly are, or build a new “liberal” order, with countries such as Russia, China and Turkey? In the long term, will Germans want to co-lead the free world or instead join a new concert of authoritarian powers.

Berlin against everyone

Few matters have as strongly consolidated politicians, analysts and media in Central and Eastern Europe as the Nord Stream 2. Opposition to the gas pipeline in one form or another has been expressed by almost all countries in the region, including those that on many other issues take a pro-Russian course, such as Hungary. Nord Stream 2 not only unites the often divided CEE countries across borders but is also one of the few themes where internal political scenes remain almost unanimous. In the case of Poland, it is indeed difficult to find another issue that the MEPs of Law and Justice and the Civic Platform could agree on. After the last Putin-Merkel meeting, all these voices from the Visegrad Group, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Sweden, Denmark and the United Kingdom, and finally the United States, have been disregarded.

At first German press tried not to emphasise this matter to the European partners of Berlin. However, Russians quickly revealed it themselves with the statement of Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said that Putin and Merkel had agreed to defend Nord Stream 2 against interference from third countries. There was no negation from the German side. Shortly afterwards in Warsaw, the head of the German diplomacy Heiko Maas stated that Germany “does not share” our concerns related to Nord Stream 2.

Germany is undeniably a European superpower, and its position allows it to act disregarding the CEE. It is even able to ‘somehow’ bring the pipeline projects outside of the coverage of the European law, which would otherwise end in its unavoidable blocking. Germany can, in short, ignore all the opposing views, but such a path brings many external costs. For the European unity, the rapprochement between Germany and Russia, also visible in other fields, can be as devastating as Brexit in the long run. Before the Putin-Merkel meeting, that’s why “Politico” appealed to the Chancellor to “scuttle Nord Stream 2”.

What is Angela Merkel’s aim?

Stefan Meister from the DGAP think tank clearly stated the arguments of the German side. Firstly, Germany must look for partners who will help their energy-intensive economy to grow. Secondly, both sides wanted to use the meeting “to send a signal to Washington that they would not let President Trump blackmail them”. Thirdly, Russia is an actor in the agreement with Iran, which Germany wants to save despite Washington’s actions. Fourthly, Russia is also a partner in the talks on the stabilisation in Syria. Consequently, it has the power to provoke another wave of migration or to prevent it. We can also mention the fact that German public opinion is increasingly pro-Russian and that the parties that sympathise with Moscow gain popularity. Finally, the economically, politically, and administratively declining Ukraine isn’t treated as a serious partner but rather as one of the subjects in German foreign policy. Russia’s guarantees of maintaining gas transit to Europe through Ukraine are wholly unreliable, and German policymakers know it perfectly well.

All these arguments undoubtedly contributed to the fact that Angela Merkel abandoned her current moderate putinoscepticism and ceased to hesitate about the Nord Stream 2. It is worth adding that Putin’s visit was preceded by a tour of the head of the Russian general staff, Valerij Gerasimov, who had been banned from entering the European Union under sanctions imposed after the war in Ukraine. While welcoming him, however, the German side cited  special national interest.

Four arguments against the partnership with Russia

However, the national interest is not only about immediate profits, but also losses spread over time. In the long-term, tightening relations with Moscow and ignoring the opposition, may lead Berlin to a defeat. First of all, for countries that see Russian imperialism as an existential threat (Baltic states, Poland), Germany ceases to be a reliable partner in matters of military and energy security. These countries will now be all the more concerned with building good relations with the only possible reliable guarantor remaining – the US – including further invitations for the American presence in their territory. Moreover, because they treat Russia as an existential threat, cooperation with the US in the field of security will be given higher priority than economic interests. It should be remembered that these countries joined the EU in no small extent to protect their sovereignty against Moscow. That is why currently, their loyalty to the entire European project is at stake.

Secondly, with all the explanations, reassurances and reservations about the recent developments, such actions destroy the soft power capital developed by Berlin, together with their image of the “moral superpower”. Politics, to work well, needs a bit of hypocrisy. However, at a certain point, too much hypocrisy destroys politics, and arguments made by politicians are stripped of their legitimacy. How will German politicians defend European values, liberal governance and democracy now? For what exactly will they criticise Trump and scold populists? How will they convince us that they want peace in Europe? It is also worth adding that while Trump was also trying to move  closer to Moscow, he has now completely withdrawn from these plans under the influence of American public opinion and the position of Congress as well as the intelligence community . He cancelled the second planned meeting with Putin and supported new sanctions. On the other hand, Chancellor Merkel’s views and actions seem to shift in the opposite direction.

Thirdly, if Peskov speaks the truth and if, as suggested by Meister, Berlin and Moscow have agreed on how to block American policy (regardless of which path it is going to take), then there is a precedent that will never be forgotten in Washington. Trump can be long gone, but the conflict and mistrust will remain. The US can interpret Germany’s actions as an attempt to build a Eurasian axis of cooperation that hits their vital interests. This will not be ignored by any commander in chief in the White House, regardless of their party affiliation. Germany is in a position of power, but is it really ready for a long-lasting dispute with the US, which may in the future take on all sorts of forms?

Fourthly, many politicians in the Central and Eastern Europe have so far favoured Germany, and the talks with Putin put them in a very precarious position. For example, in Poland, while the opposition is very pro-German, in the ruling camp there are also quite a few politicians who support close ties with Germany. The position of all Berlin’s friends will now be challenged. Suffice it to  say that there are no openly pro-Russian politicians in the Polish political scene.

Is it better to get along with a rough democrat or a smiling autocrat?

It is very symptomatic that shortly after Vladimir Putin’s visit, the head of German diplomacy Heiko Maas announced a new strategy for German policy towards the United States in the Handelsblatt newspaper. He writes about “building a counterweight” for Washington through European multilateralism, as well as a new formula for “a more balanced partnership”. Mass said that since the “East-West conflict become history,” Europe and the US are moving further apart. Claiming that conflicts with the East are a part of a long bygone era, would not cross anyone’s mind not only in Kiev but also in Vilnius, Riga and Warsaw. If by the “alliance for multilateralism” and “building the counterweights” we understand bringing Putin’s Russia into cooperation against the USA, we are swimming in some very murky waters indeed. Not everyone in the EU will want to go there with Berlin, especially in the East.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. It is still possible for German politicians interested in building transatlantic rather than Eurasian ties to stop a process that could significantly hurt their country and the EU. We should begin with a simple question. How much can you rely on Putin? Working with Trump is not easy, but in truth – is there any alternative? What’s more, not everything that Trump says about unfair treatment of the US is wholly detached from reality. According to the data cited in March by Handelsblatt (before the introduction of new tariffs) US goods imported into the EU were laden with duty heavier on average than those that went to the US from Europe (5.2% to 3.5%). It is true that Trump is a transactional politician – distrustful of international organisations, focused on bilateral talks and concrete benefits. So why not offer him a string of “deals”? Greater military expenditure in exchange for more free trade, departure from the gas pipeline in exchange for concessions regarding Iran?

The logic, which requires at all costs to reject transactionalism in favour of liberalism in international relations, may ultimately lead to separation of liberalism (in a broader sense) from democracy. Ironically, this is precisely what the liberal centre routinely accuses democratic populists of. There is a worrying alternative on the horizon. Is it better to deal with democracy, which the United States undoubtedly are, in a transactional way or to build a new “liberal” order with Russia, China and Turkey? Do Germans want to co-lead a free world in the long run or join a new concert of  authoritarian powers?


Translation from Polish: Jędrzej Pyzik


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.