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Ostpolitik is now Lostpolitik.
For years, Germany was the undisputed leader of a bloc within a bloc — the voice and muscle of Central and Eastern European nations in the EU who looked to Berlin for patronage, guidance, and, at times, explicit instructions. Often, when Brussels needed to twist arms, it was Germany that cajoled Poland, Hungary or others to get with the program.
But a series of recent developments has eroded Berlin’s authority and influence in Central and Eastern Europe and, crucially, among leaders around the European Council’s summit table. These include the retirement late last year of long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel, the formation of a more complex three-party governing coalition in Berlin, and especially a litany of policy missteps and inconsistent messaging related to Russia policy and the war in Ukraine.
The result has been a marked weakening of Berlin’s influence and a greater willingness by other countries to go their own way and, in some cases, openly challenge the Franco-German alliance that has long been at the center of EU power and decision-making, according to numerous EU officials and diplomats.
“We don’t need German protection; history proved it to be on the wrong side of history,” declared a diplomat from Eastern Europe, referring to Berlin’s longtime policy of treading softly with Moscow. “Poland has shown good leadership, on Russia, on welcoming [Ukranian] refugees, on phasing out gas. The Baltics have a smart leadership. Bulgaria has a new more credible government. Romania is stable,” the diplomat said.
The crumbling of German authority was on vivid display this week as EU heads of state and government struggled to reach an agreement to embargo Russian oil and to overcome the stubborn opposition of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
In the past, when Orbán threw up obstacles to EU proposals, Merkel was often called upon to bring him to heel. Whether Merkel’s accommodations with Orbán and others — both inside and outside the bloc — served the EU’s interests in the long term is very much open to question these days. But there was no doubting Merkel’s — and Berlin’s — sway within the EU.
This time, Germany was accused of trying to seek an advantage in a proposed exemption from the embargo for oil delivered via pipeline. Berlin repeatedly denied any involvement in proposing the exemption, and ultimately pledged to end all purchases of Russian oil by the end of this year — as a clear demonstration that it would not gain anything from continued pipeline supplies.
But the fact that other EU member countries, including some from the East, were so suspicious at all underscores Berlin’s damaged credibility.
Meanwhile, an earlier visit to Budapest by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is a former German defense minister and disciple of Merkel, yielded no breakthrough in the standoff over the oil ban. And Hungary’s ongoing rule-of-law dispute with the Commission made reaching a compromise more difficult.
Instead, it was left to European Council President Charles Michel, who is a former Belgian prime minister, and the French presidency of the Council of the EU to fashion a compromise that Hungary ultimately accepted, clearing the way for adoption not just of the oil ban but a wider sixth package of sanctions. Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, did not have a key role.
“Scholz is a real problem,” an EU diplomat said. “He’s just being the mercantile German instead of the compromise-maker that Merkel was. There is no one stepping in for Merkel.”
The diplomat said Scholz could at best be described as an “Ecofin guy” — a member of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council, composed of national finance ministers, a post that Scholz previously held. “But to be honest, he has the level of a leader of a medium-large European country,” the diplomat added.
A German official pushed back against such claims, arguing that “the fact that there’s criticism from so many countries only shows that Germany plays a leading role” in brokering compromises at the EU level at this difficult moment.
Scholz himself argued on Tuesday that the two-day summit had “underlined the great unity and solidarity of Europe toward Ukraine” — an achievement he sought to also take credit for by listing Germany’s financial help for the country, the reception of refugees as well as additional military help for Kyiv that the chancellor wants to enable via a tank swap deal with Greece.
Struggling to step up
But Scholz, a former mayor of Hamburg, shows some signs of struggling to make the step up to chancellor and leading European political figure.
On Monday, Scholz was caught on camera in a scene that didn’t make him look very statesman-like as he rolled his eyes when reporters shouted questions at him upon his arrival at the summit.
On the home front, Scholz came under fire in recent days for bizarre comments about climate activists who heckled him, which forced a government spokesperson to reject accusations he had compared them to Nazis.
While no one head of state or government has stepped into Merkel’s powerbroker role, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief famous for declaring the bank would do “whatever it takes” during the eurozone crisis, is the leader who now wields the most gravitas.
But Italy carries the political baggage of many decades of unstable politics and financial mismanagement, limiting the scope of Italian influence no matter who is prime minister.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron, who was recently re-elected to a second term, is viewed as unable to put aside his ego and grandiosity in order to become a quiet influencer of consensus-driven policymaking and decisions.
The downshift in German influence was already underway in the waning years of Merkel’s 16-year tenure, but first became glaringly visible last June when she and Macron proposed holding an EU summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — only to be brutally rebuffed by leaders from Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Macron and Merkel had seemed intent on keeping up with U.S. President Joe Biden, who had held his own summit with Putin in Geneva earlier that month. That meeting yielded few concrete deliverables but offered a rare hint of potentially improved relations with Moscow.
Eastern European nations warned that Putin had not yet taken any concrete steps in response to Biden’s overtures, and cautioned that an overly soft approach by the EU toward the authoritarian Russian leader could undermine Biden’s efforts to create a new geopolitical balance.
German and French credibility had already taken a beating from the long-failed effort to implement the Minsk peace agreements, a pair of ceasefire accords intended to end the Russian-backed separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Putin’s widescale invasion of Ukraine only further confirmed to Eastern European nations that Germany had made a grave historic mistake by putting economic interests ahead of containing and isolating a warmongering dictator. The invasion followed months of warnings from Washington that war was imminent — warnings that Berlin and Paris had answered with open skepticism.
Some points for Paris
Macron has won some praise from Central and Eastern European officials for paying more attention to their region and their concerns than his recent predecessors.
Some noted that Macron had traveled extensively in the region and that Paris has openly supported Lithuania in a diplomatic dispute with China.
And the fact that the French presidency of the Council of the EU has pushed repeatedly for the quick adoption of sanctions against Moscow is seen as a further sign of France’s engagement with the East. A second Eastern European diplomat said French EU Ambassador Philippe Léglise-Costa had diplomats in Brussels “working day and night — but surely I can’t complain about that, and we really appreciated it.”
But few see the French leader as a truly credible dealmaker in European politics — in part because the French system favors executive authority over parliamentary consensus-building and compromise. That means French presidents are often not used to the haggling that comes with coalition politics in other countries.
And some French ideas are regarded as controversial or even wacky by Central and Eastern Europeans, like Macron’s recent proposal of a European Political Community — an idea seen by some as a way to keep other nations from the region, such as Ukraine and Western Balkan countries, out of the EU.
Some Eastern European diplomats and officials said they still hope that Berlin will make a comeback — perhaps re-establishing credibility in international affairs with the help of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who has impressed them as more charismatic and sure-footed than Scholz.
Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš pushed back against a bigger say for France at the table, calling instead for Germany to resume its preeminent role. “It would be much better, in our view, if Germany took a more leading role,” Kariņš said in an interview with POLITICO on Monday. “My views have not changed with the change of the German government.”
For some officials it’s just a matter of time before Berlin reasserts itself as the EU’s most authoritative and influential capital: “For Merkel, it took one or two years to get full control of the dynamics at the European Council,” noted a former senior Commission official, who is a veteran of leaders’ meetings.
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