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Zeitenwende: The Great German Dilemma

Ruth Ferrero-Turrión

6 mins - 18 de Julio de 2023, 07:00

There are several tsunamis that the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has generated, from the reconfiguration of the world order as it was designed until now, to the acceleration of political, economic, and military transformation processes in Western societies. But one of the changes that has undoubtedly had the greatest impact was the 180 degree turn Chancellor Scholz made on 27 February 2022, just three days after the large-scale Russian invasion. It was then that the chancellor, in a calm manner, caused an earthquake in the German political sphere by announcing the Zeitenwende, the historic turning point that Germany was facing from that moment onwards, essentially centred on the implementation of profound geopolitical, strategic, and economic transformations that would affect the future of the German country from that moment onwards.

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The axes on which this surprising turnaround was based had everything to do with the relations that had been woven between Germany and Russia over the years. The aim was to systematically break off economic, energetic, and political relations with Moscow – relations that had been sustained since the 1960s on the basis of the famous Ostpolitik launched by Willy Brandt and whose philosophy was based on the principle of “Wandel durch Hande”, transformation through trade, and which now proved to be a failure. Thus, a new rethinking of relations with Russia, a boost to the armed forces with the addition of a €100 billion fund, and, finally, the reduction of Russia’s energy dependence were proposed. In other words, Scholz was striking a blow on the table by radically transforming German foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

Germany had managed to become the European engine thanks to the confluence of two essential factors: the maintenance of its industrial power and its expansion towards regions such as Visegrad or southern countries such as Spain, and the import of cheap Russian energy. Both have allowed it to produce a lot, well and competitively in the EU market. So Scholz’s proposal was extremely bold and posed a tremendous challenge for the German economy. The Germans must now withstand the economic and financial drain of the war while remaining the economic engine of Europe. Germany stands at a turning point which will determine its position in the European framework at a time of profound geopolitical changes both beyond, within and from the EU.

From the outset, it seems very clear that the current German establishment does not appear to be able to assume a political leadership role that would allow it to maintain its role as Europe’s Führungsmacht (leadership capacity). There is a clear loss of influence among Central and Eastern European countries that have not taken kindly and, from their perspective, to the doubts expressed by the German government in its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Germany’s interpretation, or rather Scholz’s, since the green wing of the government does not share his approach, diverges substantially from the vision of the Eastern European countries, which are in favour of a more Euro-Atlantic axis than a more European one. Thus, although German social democracy has historically been inclined towards NATO in security and defence matters, it views with suspicion and fear the radicalism of some of the positions that are being agreed within the alliance.

This situation has led to an accelerated loss of political power for the Franco-German axis, which is increasingly shifting eastwards territorially and ideologically towards the ultra-conservative and nationalist right. This shift in Europe’s centre of gravity has also accelerated with the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, ushering in a new political cycle at the hands of the radical right.

If we move on to an analysis of the achievements of this change of course, the lights and shadows are more than evident. In energy policy, Russia’s ability to disconnect from hydrocarbons has been remarkable, and it is one of the countries that has achieved this in the shortest period of time. By 2022, dependence on natural gas had already dropped from 52% to 22% in barely a year, as had oil consumption, which fell by around 51% from November 2021 to November 2022. The speed in signing agreements with alternative suppliers such as Qatar and Norway for gas or Iraq for oil has been decisive. With this, Germany radically ended its dependence on Russian oil and gas as well as its approach to ‘change through trade’.

In terms of defence policy, although the German approach has changed and a very substantial increase in the budget has been made, the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) are still far from achieving the funding required to reach the NATO target of 2% of GDP. The Sondervermögen (special defence fund) is having a slow disbursement that has not yet been reflected in defence budget planning.

In one year, Germany has managed to become independent of Russian gas by putting an end to its economic and energetic relationship with Russia. It has done this by strengthening Euro-Atlantic relations and reaffirming NATO as Germany’s main defence instrument, while at the same time making a qualitative leap in German military doctrine with a substantial increase in defence spending. On the other hand, at the same time, it has lost considerable political weight in the European framework in relation to its traditional Eastern allies and the country, according to the latest report by the German Federal Statistical Office, entered recession in May.

The Zeitenwende has certainly been an extremely bold, if still inconclusive, move. Perhaps it is time to take stock and assess how Germany can recover from these profound changes in as short a period of time as possible. Otherwise, it does not seem possible for European strategic autonomy to take off, as, to paraphrase NATO Secretary General Ismay Hastings, the US would have won the game in Europe, with the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.
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