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IDSA COMMENT

The new government in Berlin

October 31, 2009

A month after September 27 parliamentary elections in Germany followed by protracted negotiations amongst the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and the Bavarian sister party, Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) or the Liberals, a 124 page coalition agreement has been declared. The title of the coalition agreement, ‘Growth, Education, Cohesion’, is self-explanatory as it neatly lists, areas like growth, motivation, economic crisis, job market on which the largest economy of Europe would focus in the coming four years. It is also evident from the agreement, since a whole section has been devoted on German unity, that even twenty years after the fall of Berlin Wall issues like social cohesion and the parity between the East and West are still very important. The comprehensive document also shows that there are numerous issues of divergence which the coalition partners want to put on record.

The list of incumbents in the new cabinet also shows the combination of experience and new faces. While the Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of the CDU in the last cabinet is the new finance minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the popular young CSU leader is the new German defence minister. As expected, the FDP leader Guido Westerwelle is the new foreign minister and vice chancellor of Germany. Surprising is that Philip Rösler, a Vietnam-born young Liberal is appointed as the new health minister.

Overall it may be said no notable change in the ruling coalition in Germany when in the elections CDU’s traditional rival, the Social Democrats (SPD) led by the outgoing foreign minister, vice chancellor and Merkel’s challenger, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, faced a rout and expectedly the FDP became the new coalition partner. Unlike the previous elections, this time the electoral battle was on expected lines and foreign policy issues barring Afghanistan were totally absent. It was the controversial airstrike ahead of the German polls -ordered by a German commander at Kunduz in northern Afghanistan claiming civilian lives – that brought the issue of Afghanistan under persistent media scrutiny and electoral debate. Moreover, German security agencies were extremely apprehensive of imminent terrorist attacks during the poll campaign. Even after the elections the terrorist threat linked with the Af–Pak region has not decreased in any way. As per the assessment of German security agencies, almost 180 Islamists from Germany have ‘graduated’ from the terror training camps in the Hindukush or are planning to do so. Equally concerning is the fact that 80 of them have returned back to Germany after such terrorist training. The actual nature of the terrorist threat and the data provided by German intelligence agencies to media can be debated. However what the former German Social-Democrat Defence Minister, Peter Struck, earlier claimed, that, ‘Germany is being defended even at the Hindukush’ is appearing to be true.

At present it seems that the continuity in foreign policy would be maintained by the new government in Berlin. India, though a strategic partner of Germany, has found little reference in the coalition agreement. India is however considered as big partners like China and Japan with whom partnerships would be required to solve the regional conflicts and global hotspots. In this region undoubtedly the focus of the German foreign policy would be on the Af-Pak region. Early this year Germany appointed Ambassador Bernd Mützelburg as its Special Envoy for the Af-Pak region. Though the coalition agreement does not spell the exact timing of withdrawal for German armed forces but remains ambiguous that after consultations with its partners it would step by step hand over responsibilities to Afghan authorities.

A special reference to the new Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle may be made here. The FDP is known for its pro-Tibet policies. Even during the Kohl Chancellorship when the German Foreign Minister was Klaus Kinkel from the FDP and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation -close to the FDP- invited Chinese displeasure by sponsoring an international conference on Tibet in 1996. Even the meeting of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, with the Dalai Lama in the Chancellor’s Office in 2007 evoked a similar response from the Chinese government. It remains to be seen how much freedom the German Foreign Office under Guido Westerwelle would enjoy to support the Tibetan cause and whether it would make any difference within the coalition in the coming years. Disarmament and arms control remain favourite subjects with the new German Foreign Minister as he has already articulated in an interview that, “We consider it an enormous failure on Germany's part to have remained so passive on the subject of disarmament and arms control, although our country enjoys a high degree of credibility in this area.” The coalition agreement also envisages that Germany would ask NATO, whose new strategic concept is under revision, as well as the US to remove the remaining nuclear weapons in Germany. Some spectacular announcements and brilliant ideas in this regard may be anticipated from the German Foreign Office. Nonetheless how Germany would be able to convince its other allies to achieve this specific goal would be interesting to observe. On the eve of the new government it is expected that Germany would mainly devote its energy at home as the mandate is for continuity in the time of economic recession. No spectacular point-of-departure in foreign policy can hence be expected from Berlin.