In late November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a number of rather controversial statements. On November 26, Germany, together with France, issued a brief “road map” for EU reform. Within the next two years this plan is to be discussed by the “Conference on the Future of Europe,” tasked with working out proposals and drawing up a strategy for “structural reforms” aimed at making the European Union “more united and sovereign.” Until recently, analysts interpreted such a tonality in European documents as the leading European countries’ readiness for a future, if not without NATO, then alongside it nonetheless. In early November, French President Emmanuel Macron described NATO as being “brain dead,” and urged Europe to reassess its foreign policy, including its relations with Russia. However, in her November 27 address to the Bundestag, Angela Merkel said that the EU would not be able to protect itself without NATO and, therefore, should work to keep the alliance in place. Merkel is known for her political pragmatism, but will it be enough to smooth out the growing contradictions regarding the future of the European Union?
It was none other than Angela Markel who, at the close of the May 2017 NATO summit, the first one attended by President Donald Trump, said that Europe could no longer rely on the United States. Since then, she has repeatedly voiced the Europeans’ fears that since the end of the Cold War, America’s geopolitical interests in Europe have consistently been undermining Europe’s global competitiveness. Many representatives of the European and even American in the Atlantic establishment have even discussed the possibility of nominating the German chancellor as an alternative leader of the Western civilization to the increasingly isolationist America. This has made Germany the main target of strong criticism by Washington and accusations of sabotaging NATO’s decision to increase the country’s defense outlays to 2 percent of GDP by 2024, thus setting a bad example for other EU countries.
At the same time, Merkel has always been well aware of Germany’s inability to act as a world leader all by itself. As a result, continued European integration remains a major political priority for Berlin.
Until recently, Berlin’s strategy was clearly aimed at strengthening the EU’s global role. What is also clear, however, is that US non-participation would effectively deprive NATO of its combat capability, because in terms of security Europe is almost completely dependent on America. This, in turn, objectively undermines any attempts to strengthen the EU’s independence even in matters pertaining to the European continent, let alone the world. Over the course of the past two years, the task of strengthening the “sovereignty of Europe” has been topmost on the minds of the EU leaders, with Germany being a prominent advocate of the idea of an “independent and strong Europe,” including in matters of security and defense. Indeed, it was Germany, in tandem with France, which, a year ago, pitched the idea of creating a full-fledged EU army.
In her “impassionate speech in defense of NATO” Angela Merkel emphasized that “NATO is more vital now, more even than during the Cold War.”
Merkel’s demonstrative return to the rhetoric of transatlantic unity could also be a tactical ploy now that the US Congress continues to threaten sanctions against companies building the strategic Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. While the December 3-4 NATO summit in London was officially held to mark the 70th anniversary of the organization, many Western commentators still predicted a “tense” meeting, primarily because of Donald Trump’s well-known criticism of the military alliance, and, above all, of many of its European members. Meanwhile, the influential US publication Foreign Affairs does not rule out the possibility of Trump being removed from office already before this year is out. In this context, public support for NATO comes as a confirmation of the bloc’s commitment to the strategic ties traditionally existing between Europe and America, which are still popular among the Washington establishment. Finally, such a show of firmness could have been just another tactical move by Berlin in the run-up to the December 9 “Normandy Four” meeting in Paris.
At the same time, Merkel’s increasingly controversial position on EU-NATO relations may also be dictated by strategic reasons.
First, there is a growing sense of general uncertainty in Germany, whose economy has barely avoided falling into recession and showed a 3rd quarter growth of just a measly 0.1 percent. It looks like the economic boom of the past few years is now over. Second, Germany remains caught between an objective need to pursue a more “more thorough” defense policy – so that it is “taken seriously” both in Europe and the world – and fears that any dramatic military buildup could only stoke up fears of a revival of the “German diktat.” Without openly disputing Emmanuel Macron’s idea that Europeans need to regain their “military sovereignty,” Angela Merkel demonstrates either duality or indecision: just a few days ago, she promised to increase the country’s defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, which Trump insists on, but not before the start of the 2030s, by which time her term in office will have long expired.
Third, Germany’s domestic political prospects are getting increasingly dim as Merkel’s CDU party is losing voters in local elections to other parties, including the “far-right” “Alternative for Germany.” There is growing discontent within the CDU, including its senior members, who are blaming Merkel for the loss of the party’s ideological “face,” all of which undermines the Christian Democrats’ popularity among German voters. There is a struggle currently going on for leadership both in the CDU and at the very top of the country’s political hierarchy. Finally, the media is raising alarm about Germany’s “foreign policy paralysis.” And this at a time when the country is facing a mounting wave of foreign policy challenges and, according to Die Zeit, “can no longer shy away from defending its own interests.” Thus, “expectations of a change of power” within the country coincide with a period of “foreign policy transition when the longtime orientation to America has exhausted itself and a new one is not foreseen.” Merkel’s critics say that, stunned by the situation of a “double political transition,” Merkel “is no longer able and, obviously, does not want to take the initiative.”
The political “stupor” that Berlin has found itself in is negatively reflecting on the European Union, where no reforms are possible without German endorsement. The situation is aggravated by the inevitable “return of geopolitics” to the EU agenda. Many in Europe fear that Brexit could deprive the EU of its “strategic weight,” with the European Commission’s new head, Ursula von der Leyen, saying that Europe needs to learn to speak the “language of power,” and describing the Commission’s present lineup as “geopolitical.” It looks like maintaining “political unity” is topmost on the EU’s mind. The new European Commission has yet to show how far it is prepared to go in an effort to fend off attacks by “populists” in a number of its member states, and counter the general tendency for the fragmentation of the Union. More recently, Emmanuel Macron confirmed EU fears about his claims to supremacy in the community by almost single-handedly blocking negotiations on the start of a new expansion phase, much to the chagrin of many German politicians. This could seriously complicate the distribution of roles both in the “European tandem” and in the EU as a whole.
In mid-November, The Economist outlined his vision of the two most likely scenarios of the future European Union.
In the first, mildly positive, one the EU muddles its way towards a multi-tier structure in which overlapping and concentric circles of states can better co-operate. Different “coalitions of the willing” within the EU emerge to do different things. Militarily adventurous states like France and Italy complement NATO with midsized interventions close to Europe. By the 2030s, Europe emerges as a more hard-nosed figure, with a patchwork of shared interests. Though not comparable in military or technological power to America or China, it is a relevant broker between them, The Economist writes.
In the second, more negative, scenario the EU’s relative decline is sharper. Anemic growth sidelines long-term geopolitical and industrial considerations at the expense of short-term fixes and narrow national advantage-seeking. Outside challenges turns states inward and against each other. The EU enters the 2030s in one piece, but divided and less relevant, its high relative living standards fraying as Europe falls behind economic rivals and its population ages and shrinks, The Economist concludes. What is common in both these scenarios is the factor of European division over interests that need to be defended, and also the strategy and resources that need to be utilized, as well as the increasingly difficult task of reaching a consensus on shared goals.
Relations between Europe and Russia offer a good example of a crisis of goals and interests. According to some experts, even in NATO “all members, except Poland and the Baltic countries, see no signs of Moscow planning an offensive.” Besides, it was certainly not Russia, who initiated the scrapping of the INF Treaty, which had for decades benefited the Europeans, even more than it did others. On the eve of the NATO summit, the British media proposed an alliance to “build bridges” with the largest eastern neighbor. Paradoxically, a trade and economic union, which is exactly what the European Union happens to be, still sticks to the Cold War logic. The fact that “the situation is more complicated” is better understood in Paris. As for Berlin, it seems that it would like to see Europe “tormenting itself” over a dilemma, which is as far-fetched as it is intractable. What is more important for the EU – to avoid “undermining NATO”? Moreover, America’s pivot to Asia began already before Trump, and in the long haul “appears irreversible.” Or maintain its status as a subject of global politics? Right now, they view Germany as a threat, someone whose activity or passivity could potentially lead to equally unfavorable results, at least for the pan-European project. And they prefer not to hear those calling for an expansion of the pan-European dialogue.
Europe finds itself in a situation of either stalemate or zugzwang. A potentially stronger EU objectively threatens the future of NATO. Conversely, attempts to reformat, revive NATO could undermine the prospects of making the EU more independent. Meanwhile, critics accuse Merkel and her government of preferring not to deal with issues “where there is no consensus” in order to avoid “disagreement.” Germany would have to choose “between the US and France.” In the present context, this means a choice between America and Europe. It seems that, sooner, rather than later, such a choice will become practically inevitable both for Berlin and for the European Union as a whole.
From our partner International Affairs
Sweden’s NATO Predicament and the Nations whose Destinies Connected
Exploring the Historical Bonds of Sweden, Poland, and Turkey
The Swedish monarch, Charles XII, exuded pride and arrogance as he led his formidable army towards Moscow, still in his twenties. He believed his forces to be invincible, drawing comparisons between himself and his soldiers to the legendary Leonidas and his valiant 300 Spartans. Several factors contributed to the young king’s unwavering confidence on the path to Moscow.
A mere few years prior, in 1700, a powerful coalition comprising Denmark-Norway, Saxony-Poland-Lithuania, and Russia had launched a coordinated assault on the Swedish protectorate of Holstein-Gottorp, as well as the provinces of Livonia and Ingria. Undeterred by the overwhelming presence of enemy armies, Charles XII triumphed in successive sieges, vanquishing his adversaries one by one. Following the Battle of Narva, even the formidable Tsar Peter the Great of Russia sought terms of agreement, but Charles XII disregarded these pleas. By the time they arrived at the gates of Moscow, the Swedish army had emerged victorious against foes two or even three times their own size, bolstering the commander’s sense of invincibility, akin to the great conquerors of the past like Leonidas or Alexander the Great. However, the seemingly indomitable Charles XII committed the same error as dreamy conquerors such as Napoleon and Hitler before him: underestimating the challenges posed by the vast Russian steppes. The army of Charles XII suffered a devastating defeat, compelling the young monarch to seek refuge in Ottoman territories, accompanied by a mere thousand men.
The Swedish king and his men remained guests in the Ottoman Empire, which is today Ukrainian territory, for more than 5 years. The Ottomans treated Charles like a king and cherished him, and he and his Polish and Ukrainian entourage were generously borne. Turkish Sultan Ahmed III was aware of the importance of Sweden for Ottoman security. The King, who could not return to his country, hoped to defeat Russia through an alliance with Poland and Ottoman Turks. The presence of the Swedish King in the Ottoman Empire also strained Turkish-Russian relations and eventually brought them to the brink of war. The most important reason for the Ottoman-Russian Prut War (1710-11) was the Turks’ refusal to surrender Charles XII to the Russians.
Nations whose Destinies Connected
If one were to ask residents of Istanbul about the location of Sweden or Poland today, they might draw a blank. In the minds of modern Turks, these countries no longer hold strong alliances or close ties. Similar sentiments can be found on the streets of Stockholm or Warsaw. Relations between Turkey, Sweden, and Poland have weakened and even become uncertain since the days of the Ottoman Empire. However, during the Ottoman era, particularly in the 16th-18th centuries, the sultans in Istanbul viewed Sweden and Poland as crucial counterbalances against Russia in Eastern Europe, and they prioritized these relationships.
For the Ottomans, it was advantageous that Russia was engaged in a conflict with Sweden in the north, as it alleviated pressure on the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman wars with Russia also presented an opportunity for the Swedish Kingdom to launch attacks against Russia. In line with Ottoman foreign policy, the corridor spanning from the Ottoman Empire to the Baltic Sea, encompassing Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, and the Kingdom of Sweden, was considered a unified entity and treated as such. Presently, the prevailing method of interpreting maps primarily revolves around an east-west orientation, neglecting the various other facets of geography. Restricting the analysis of Russia’s perception of Eastern Europe solely to the East-West dimension would be highly deceptive. When examining the map from the vantage points of influential decision makers or political scientists situated in Istanbul or Stockholm, it is crucial for them to perceive a comprehensive geographical corridor extending harmoniously from Sweden to Anatolia. This broader perspective is essential in formulating appropriate policies aligned with the geographical realities at hand. While it can be acknowledged that Ottoman efforts were insufficient, their approach to map interpretation holds validity, and a comparable perspective remains relevant in contemporary times.
Growing Russia Shrinking Nations
The Russian threat necessitated cooperation and coordination among Sweden, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia’s objective had been to expand its reach to the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, which inevitably led to westward and southward offensives by Russian armies. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine draws its origins from these historical objectives as well: Russia seeks to establish a lasting and greater presence in the Black Sea region and gain access to war seas.
Over the centuries, Moscow (Russia), a relatively insignificant principality in the 15th century, rapidly expanded at the expense of three states: the Ottomans, the Kingdom of Sweden, and Poland. As Russia grew stronger, these three states gradually declined. By the end of the 18th century, Poland lost its independence and disintegrated, while the Swedish Empire diminished to the status of an ordinary state. Although the Ottoman Empire persisted until the 20th century, numerous Russian attacks eventually contributed to its collapse.
History, known for its repetition, serves as the best teacher of world politics. Hence, learning from the past is a paramount virtue for adept statesmen. Following the Ukrainian War, “old history” resurfaced in Eastern Europe, prompting regional states to seek reliable havens in anticipation of a potential Russian assault. Even Finland and Sweden, traditionally regarded as the world’s most pacifist states, found themselves lining up for NATO membership during the Cold War years. Countries under the NATO security umbrella, such as Poland and Turkey, experienced some degree of reassurance.
NATO members, particularly the United States, warmly embraced the applications of Sweden and Finland to join the alliance. However, Ankara surprisingly vetoed both applications, citing national interest. The Turkish government argued that these two states harbored anti-Turkey sentiments and terrorist groups within their borders. At least, these were the explicit reasons given. Finland managed to persuade Turkey within a year and became the fastest member state after applying to NATO. However, Turkey’s veto on Sweden’s membership still remains in effect. Sweden even made constitutional amendments in an effort to sway Turkey. While Sweden’s desire to join NATO can be understood from various perspectives, Turkey’s expectations from Sweden, as well as the key NATO member, the United States, appear more intricate.
The timing of Sweden’s accession as the 32nd NATO member remains uncertain, but statesmen should draw lessons from history. The realities faced by Poland, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire still hold relevance in today’s international relations. Setting aside current crises, the relationships between Poland, Sweden, and Turkey fall short of their potential. These countries must strive for closer and more coordinated cooperation to maintain peace and stability in Eastern Europe while safeguarding their vital and existential interests. Furthermore, this cooperation should not solely be based on hostility towards any specific state, but rather on deterring hostilities altogether. (*)
(*) For Turkish-Polish relations also see: Laçiner, Sedat, et al., Turkish-Polish Relations: Past, Present and Future, (Ankara: ÇOMÜ Press, 2015).
Sino-European Relations Souring as Russia-Ukrainian War Intensifies
Since the establishment of Sino–European relations in 1975, there have been significant changes toward building a China-driven agenda in the past 15 months. These changes are intrinsically related to China’s rise, which diverted the EU-American international protagonism.
While there is no common ground among EU members on how to counterbalance the dependence on trading with the second-largest economy in the world, the G7 Summit imparted to the collective endeavors of the largest economies to ‘de-risk’ from China. The EUA, Canada, the UK, and Japan have joined the club.
The Russo-Ukrainian War Context
In March 2019, the European Union adopted a two-folded stance on its relationship with China, defining it as competition cooperation. This dualism underlines the need to understand how to play politics the Chinese way. Since then, the EU has sought to adopt a more assertive tactic, and the ‘systemic rival’ approach has thus prevailed. Besides, the recent Russia-Ukrainian war has contributed much to this decision. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently stated, “How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward.”
China’s close ties with Russia have been around for a while. Their connections in the global arena intensified to counterbalance the American world leadership. Sino-Russian relations were built through symmetric ideological concepts, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is still rooted in the Marxism-Lenist ideology.
China’s foreign affairs are based on non-interventionism principles, but its alignment with Putin has been questioned instead as support to the current war that possibly includes military intelligence and economic aid to Russia. China’s abstention from voting on the resolution that condemned Russia’s latest actions in Ukraine in October 2002 and the recent visit of Xi Jinping to Moscow days after the international criminal court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin contributed to the EU to build the narrative that China does support Russia’s point of view and justifications to the war.
The EU strongly condemned Xi’s trip, voicing worries about China’s role in the war and power balance in its relations with Russia, which now favors China. In late March, Von der Leyen delivered a speech on EU-China relations to the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the European Policy Centre, stating, “President Xi is maintaining his ‘no-limits friendship’ with Putin.”
As Xi voiced “peace talks” and “responsible dialogue” over the war, a joint statement with his Russian counterpart raised the flag of a possible siding with Russia. The joint statement contained criticisms of sanctions and the contributions of NATO in expanding the conflict.
China’s possible role in a peaceful negotiation is unlike the one adopted to break a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which ended decades of elusive diplomatic relations. The reason is simple: its close ties with Russia.
The Economic Context
In the G7 summit in Hiroshima last week, the largest global economies voiced ‘de-risking’ China against possible economic coercion in various areas involving trade, technologies and intellectual property, and supply chain.
Apart from the Sino-American trade war and the reliance on trading in China – the EU recorded a trade deficit of more than 365 billion euros with China in 2022 – at least two other concerns have debuted on the discussion agenda: the country’s rare earth metals control and responsibility in cyberspace.
To counterbalance China’s new status quo on the global stage, the G7 announced the launch of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment. The total of $600 billion in financing for quality infrastructure is a clear threat to the Belt and Road initiative, but it is unlike that it will pose any danger to China-led investment activities.
The Taiwan Context
The expansion of Chinese influence in the South China Sea has also become a prominent topic at the G7 summit. The G7 Foreign Ministers released a joint statement against China’s latest military activities near Taiwan, condemning economic coercion and urging peaceful talks.
Taiwan is perhaps China’s most irrevocable negotiation topic in foreign relations as the “One China” policy emphasizes the recognition of the island as an integral part of its territory instead of a separate sovereign state. This policy is the central pillar of bilateral diplomatic relations with China.
The complex dynamics shaping countries’ perceptions and interactions with China have shifted Europe’s future standpoint, leaning towards a more assertive approach. As Europe redefines its relationship with China, the balance between reciprocity and market access, and strategic cooperation in climate change will shape the continent’s strategy moving forward. In any event, Europe’s future relations on China promises to be more stick, less carrot.
Expulsion of Diplomats further Cripples Russian-German bilateral ties
Russia and Germany have cross-haired relations as both disagreed on many policy issues, the latest on Russia-Ukraine crisis. The bilateral relations has dived down to its lowest level, especially with imposition of sanctions and expulsion of diplomats.
Reports said hundreds working for Germany in Russia had to quit employment and leave the country. Hundreds of civil servants and local employees working for German institutions in Russia would need to leave the country or lose their jobs in the coming days following an order by Moscow, Germany’s foreign ministry said May 27.
Those affected include teachers, as well as other employees of schools and the Goethe Institute, and is necessary to maintain the right balance for Germany’s diplomatic presence, said the person, who described the number affected as at least 100.
Starting from June, Russia will slash the number of people that Germany can employ in its embassies or institutions in Russia in the education and cultural sectors, the ministry said.
Several hundred people are affected, including officials from the embassy and consulate, but mostly employees of the Goethe cultural institute in the country, German schools, nurseries and teachers working in Russian schools, it added.
Both German and local Russian employees are affected, the ministry said, without giving precise figures on each category of staff. German employees will have to quit the country by June 1.
Russian employees should not be required to leave the country, but will lose their jobs since German institutions will no longer be able to employ them, the ministry said – clarifying initial indications the locals would have to leave too.
The news was first revealed in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which spoke of a “diplomatic declaration of war by Moscow” against Berlin. “This is a unilateral, unjustified and incomprehensible decision,” the German foreign ministry said in a statement.
A close economic partner with Russia before Moscow invaded Ukraine, Germany has since moved away from Moscow, financially and militarily supporting Kyiv in the conflict. Since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, Russian espionage in Germany has grown at a rate rarely equalled in recent years, according to German security services.
In mid-April, Germany expelled a number of Russian diplomats “to reduce the presence of intelligence services” which prompted a tit-for-tat response from Moscow which booted out some 20 German embassy staff.
The Russian foreign ministry in April set a ceiling for the number of German diplomats and representatives of public organisations allowed to stay in Russia or be employed by German institutions, the German foreign ministry said.
“This limit set by Russia from the beginning of June implies major cuts in all areas of (Germany’s) presence in Russia,” the ministry said. German authorities have tried in recent weeks to get the Russian ministry to reverse its decision, but without success, Sueddeutsche Zeitung said.
Berlin will aim to ensure “a real balance” in its response, the foreign ministry said. In spring 2022, Germany already expelled some 40 Russian diplomats which Berlin believed to represent a threat to its security.
Before Moscow invaded Ukraine, Russia was Germany’s main supplier of gas and a major supplier of oil. However Germany stopped supplies and has since become one of the biggest providers of arms and financial support to Ukraine in its war against Russia, souring relations which had been warming over decades.
Last October, the head of Germany’s cybersecurity agency, Arne Schoenbohm, was fired after news reports revealed his proximity to a cybersecurity consultancy believed to have contacts with Russian intelligence services. A month later, a German reserve officer was handed a suspended prison sentence of a year and nine months for spying for Russia.
Relations between Russia and Germany, which used to be the biggest buyer of Russian oil and gas, have broken down since Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the West responded with sanctions and weapons supplies.
Earlier on May 26, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the ambassadors of Germany, Sweden and Denmark to protest over what it said was the “complete lack of results” in an investigation to identify who blew up the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year.
Several unexplained underwater explosions ruptured the Nord Stream 1 and newly built Nord Stream 2 pipelines that link Russia and Germany across the Baltic Sea in September 2022. The blasts occurred in the economic zones of Sweden and Denmark. Both countries say the explosions were deliberate, but have yet to determine who was responsible. The two countries as well as Germany are investigating the incident.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry in a statement accused all three of deliberately dragging their feet and trying to conceal who was behind the blasts. It said it was unhappy about what it called the opaque nature of the investigation and its refusal to engage with Russia.
“It has been noted that these countries are not interested in establishing the true circumstances of this sabotage. On the contrary, they are delaying their efforts and trying to conceal the tracks and the true perpetrators of the crime behind which we believe are well-known countries,” it said.
“It is no coincidence that ‘leaked’ improbable versions (of what happened) are dumped in the media to try to muddy the waters,” it said. The Danish foreign ministry confirmed that its ambassador had been summoned, and said authorities in Denmark, Germany, and Sweden were continuing their investigations.
“Denmark has been providing ongoing updates to Russia regarding the investigation’s progress and responding to their inquiries. We will continue to do so,” the ministry said. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have called the incident “an act of sabotage.” Moscow has blamed the West. Neither side has provided evidence.
Several reports show that Kremlin’s leadership is taking hysterical actions to secure it sovereignty and territorial integrity. Its actions aim at protecting the statehood. Germany, Denmark and Sweden are not the only countries with locked-horns with Russia. It has policy differences with entire European Union and and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
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