The German Federal Election: Foreign and Economic Issues

September 10, 2013

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The consensus on foreign policy in Germany is unlikely to change following the elections on September 22. While German leaders are reluctant to use the country’s economic power or take the initiative on issues like Syria or a banking union, they remain committed to strengthening both Europe and transatlantic relations. These and other foreign, domestic, and economic issues were discussed at an event organized by the AGI Foreign & Domestic Policy Program and the Brookings Institution Center on U.S. and Europe. Panelists included Members of the Bundestag Ruprecht Polenz, Chairman of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Hans-Ulrich Klose, Deputy Chairman of the Bundestag Committee on Foreign Affairs; and Martin Klingst, Washington Bureau Chief of Die Zeit. The discussion was moderated by AGI President Dr. Jackson Janes and CUSE Director at Brookings, Fiona Hill.

German Foreign Policy and U.S. Relations

The panelists agreed that there is not much demand for change from the public in the German federal election this year; thus, Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to win reelection to her third term as the Federal Chancellor. The discussion turned to focus instead on Germany’s foreign policy, its role in Europe, and U.S.-German relations.

The NSA’s collection of private data has raised serious concern and anger in Germany.  Klose explained that the strong public opposition to government censorship in private lives is deeply rooted in the historical experience of the German people: two dictatorships within the last seventy years.  The experiences of the Nazi regime and the Stasi in the GDR created a high value for privacy in German public life.  However, Polenz reminded the audience that the exchange of intelligence benefits both German and U.S. national security. He suggested that direct discussions would be useful in seeking common ground on privacy matters—especially ahead of important negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

On Syria, the German position has been to seek both consensus in Europe and a decision by the United Nations Security Council. Polenz highlighted the possibility of a Security Council resolution directing the International Criminal Court to investigate the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Russia and China would find it difficult to oppose such an investigation. Polenz also expressed a broader concern that the post-World War I order in the Middle East may be fraying.

Germany’s response to the crisis in Syria sparked fresh discussion on Germany’s role in Europe and the world.  Germany’s economic might has established it as a major regional and international power.  However, it has often been reluctant to take up leadership and actively assert its political influence.  Klingst referred to the country as a big ship that is hard to steer and steadily moves only in one direction. The German approach to foreign affairs, Klose and Polenz argued, is rooted deeply in its history during the Third Reich.  Because of the dark history of the Nazi regime, postwar German leadership has intentionally been modest.  To assume leadership in Europe would arouse suspicion from other European countries, which fear that Germany might once again seek regional dominance.  It is, therefore, prudent for Germany to seek common European positions.

Looking to the future of the U.S.-German partnership, the panelists rejected the idea that U.S.-German relations will be solely based on common business interests.  Klose pointed out that Germany and the U.S. share basic values in Western societies, and the security of Europe still requires American assistance.  Both Klose and Klingst also related their personal experiences studying in the United States and stressed that such exchange programs are critical to good relations.

The Euro Crisis

Germany’s role in Europe’s economic recovery was another central topic during the discussion.  Germany has insisted on an approach that combines structural reform with fiscal stimulus to help its debt-ridden European partners.  While it has clearly asserted its leading position in the economic recovery of Europe, Germany’s call for austerity has been extremely unpopular throughout Europe and its unwillingness to turn the EU into a “transfer union” is often not well understood.  Some panelists explained that it is crucial for troubled economies in Europe to undergo structural reform in order to implement fiscal discipline, ensure sound industrial policy, and attract investment.  This would re-establish macro-economic stability in order to generate growth.

In a follow-up discussion on the future of growth and the sustainability of the German model, some panelists expressed a positive outlook.  They suggested that the manufacturing industry is important to the economy and that manufacturing has always had a high level of output in Germany’s economic development.  Though Klingst and Klose both highlighted Germany’s looming demographic challenges given the aging population and low immigration, the panelists agreed that the German model, which emphasizes technical education, apprenticeships, and responsible government oversight, will continue to fuel the future success of Germany’s export-driven economy.