Against the backdrop of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and an undercurrent of Eurosceptic fringe parties across Europe, a renewed force has emerged on the continent's foreign policy scene: Franco-German cooperation. In the words of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a January 21 meeting at the French foreign ministry, "Germany and France working side by side will strengthen European foreign policy. When Germany and France pull in the same direction, Europe moves forward."
The renewed vigor of both German foreign policy and cooperation with France is the result of two changes in the ministerial composition of the new coalition government that took power in Berlin just over a month ago. First, Steinmeier, who had been foreign minister under Merkel's first government from 2005-09 reassumed leadership of that ministry. Second, a political superstar and powerhouse, Ursula von der Leyen, became the first woman to head the German defense ministry. Steinmeier replaced Guido Westerwelle, who is widely considered to have been the weakest German foreign minister in the history of the Federal Republic. Steinmeier, who had been SPD candidate for chancellor in 2008, has no future political aspirations, but he is widely respected diplomatic heavyweight and not one content to serve out his time attending state funerals and cutting ribbons. Von der Leyen, on the other hand, is very ambitious and will want to create a record of achievement that places her squarely in line to replace Merkel as chancellor in 2017. Both ministers are keen on repudiating Westerwelle's mantra of "restraint," which many saw as Germany shirking its global responsibilities given its pivotal position at the heart of Europe.
Speaking at the opening of the 50th Munich Security Conference, von der Leyen embraced the idea of Germany as a "framework nation," saying, "indifference is not an option for Germany." Echoing that refrain on the second day of the conference was Steinmeier, who said that German commitments on the world stage must "come earlier and be more decisive and substantial." Both comments can be taken as shots at Westerwelle, who alienated many when Germany abstained on a European-inspired resolution on Libya at the United Nations Security Council, and also was seen as an obstacle to more meaningful participation by German forces in Afghanistan. Westerwelle, in particular, did not enjoy good relations with the socialist Hollande government in France, a malady rectified by the reemergence of the Social Democratic Steinmeier.
In just their first weeks in office both German ministers have been involved in several meetings with their counterparts in Paris. Steinmeier and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius have agreed to a policy of regular consultation and to make joint diplomatic visits, the first being scheduled for Moldova and Georgia. Signaling a change in policy, Steinmeier said Europe "cannot leave France alone" in its peacekeeping missions in Africa. Echoing her colleague Steinmeier's sentiment, von der Leyen, alongside her French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced the revival of the Franco-German Brigade, as well as German support for the French mission in Mali. She has also expressed a willingness to provide logistical support to the French in the Central African Republic. Von der Leyen, a strong Europeanist, will clearly be supportive of a more active involvement by German troops, but also to an integrated European defense policy and force structure. "Unified armed forces," she recently stated, "are a logical consequence of an ever increasing military cooperation in Europe." The German defense minister has stated that Germany is strong precisely because it is part of Europe.
In spite of this increased energy in Berlin for providing support, one should not assume any aggressive change in moving German forces to combat roles. Although German public opinion polls show a slight majority favoring humanitarian intervention, a large majority opposes more active involvement. So while the new government offered to help destroy Syrian chemical stockpiles, it is highly unlikely that German troops would be involved in any potential military campaign in Syria due to the SPD's historically amicable attitude toward Russia. Looking further down the road, one can see Steinmeier and von der Leyen pushing Germany in the direction of intervention under the emerging but still uncertain principle of "Responsibility to Protect," for which German involvement in Kosovo in the 1990s serves as a precedent. Already von der Leyen has expressed interest in a more robust military engagement, declaring recently that Germany "can't look away when murder and rape are taking place daily."
One thing that is certain is that Chancellor Merkel will have her hands full dealing with her cabinet over the next four years. The methodical, super cautious and controlling chancellor has already had to pull back a bit on the reins following her two hyperkinetic ministers' public statements in support of more active engagement in Africa. At the same time, she has to deal with her new vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, who heads the powerful new super-ministry responsible for both the economy and renewable energy policy. Gabriel, who chairs the SPD, the coalition party to Merkel's CDU, is clearly positioning himself to be the Social Democratic Party's candidate for chancellor in 2017 in a likely run against von der Leyen as the candidate of the CDU/CSU. Balancing these three big personalities on top of managing Germany through an ongoing European economic crisis will be a test of Merkel's legendary political acumen -- especially as she becomes ever more a lame duck.