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The return of Germany-bashing?
There have been many good reasons to criticise German foreign policy in recent years.
During the Merkel era, German policy towards countries like Russia and China was based on the complacent and convenient maxim that “countries that trade don’t go to war.”
Through its refusal to supply Ukraine with even defensive weaponry, its stubborn pursuit of negotiations via the failing Normandy format, and its insistence that the Nord Stream pipelines were purely business, Berlin encouraged Putin’s mad imperialistic fantasies.
In other words, it is understandable that trust in Germany is low right now.
And Olaf Scholz certainly hasn’t helped matters.
Unlike his busy foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, the stoic chanceller doesn’t set much store by public diplomacy. While Baerbock has delivered emotional speeches to the German public after visiting bombed-out Ukrainian cities, Scholz governs from his behind the chancellery walls. Mostly, he allows his spokesman to give cryptic answers about what he is planning.
That style of governance breeds suspicion - something Scholz has spectacularly failed to realise in recents months.
And that has allowed other countries to use this collapse of trust in Germany for their own ends.
This has been most obvious in the debate over Leopard tank deliveries.
Throughout January, diplomats from other European capitals furiously briefed the press about about how stubborn Germany was blocking their ambitions to supply Kyiv with Leopard tanks, which need a German export licence.
On January 19th, a group of nine NATO countries that included Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Czech Republic signed a joint statement that committed to building a “wider coalition of Leopard 2 tanks donors.”
Brussels-based news site Politico reported on the “frustration” at the German blockade. “We have been repeating that more tanks are necessary,” one unnamed official said. “Still we have hope.”
An unnamed French official told the same news site that “Paris is turning the screws on Germany in the hope of extracting an agreement.”
Reading the international media one was left with the inescapable impression: the whole of Europe wanted to support Ukraine. Only Germany was refusing.
Well, what has happened since Scholz announced in late January that he would organise a coalition of western countries that would supply two Leopard battalions to the Ukrainian army?
Poland, which has already supplied Kyiv with dozens of Soviet-era tanks, has stuck by its pledge to deliver 14 Leopard 2 tanks.
Portugal has agreed to send three tanks, Spain is reportedly prepared to send a similar single-digit number. Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden are all either yet to commit, or have said that they won’t help out after all.
France, which has its own Leclerc tanks, has never even come into the discussion.
The frustration in Berlin is palpable.
Asked at a summit in Brussels on Tuesday about progress on the issue, defence minister Boris Pistorius admitted that it looks “less than stellar - to say the least.”
Asked if he had any sympathy for countries that had initially pushed for a decision and were now hesitating, Pistorius added: “Since I have to be diplomatic, I’ll say I have very little (sympathy)."
What has the reaction been?
Just as well that Scholz made sure that the US were on board rather than relying on our “blowhard” neighbours in Europe, Die Welt newspaper fumed:
“This should be a lesson to all of Scholz’ domestic critics who parroted our neighbours' criticism, turned their anti-German reflexes into attacks, and lashed out at the government… what this affair shows is that people who understand responsibility tread quietly. Only half-arses make a noise.”
The Süddeustche Zeitung has observed that Scholz’ fears have been confirmed that the outcry had more to do with attempts to damage his reputation than any interest in Ukraine’s well being:
“This takes the edge off the criticism that he is the one putting on the brakes when it comes to military support for Ukraine. Domestically, this could even benefit him. But it won’t do the Ukrainians any good.”
To be honest we’ve been here before.
When it comes to combustible policies like debt-sharing, smaller European countries are adept at hiding behind the big, bad Germans. The Brussels press, meanwhile, lap up the acid quotes from anonymous (read French and Italian) diplomats about how isolated Berlin has become.
This time around, other countries clearly wanted to distract attention from what they were prepared to do by blaming Berlin. A few weeks after Scholz’s “dithering” dominated the news, some of the critcism seems obscene.
As well as supplying modern Leopard 2 tanks, Germany also confirmed last week that it would refurbish close to 200 older Leopard 1 tanks from industry stocks, meaning only Poland has made a similar effort.
And, with Russia seemingly preparing a new offensive, Ukraine needs tanks now. Which means that Berlin must get quick commitments out of other European capitals.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung hit the nail on the head when it observed that “Scholz always emphasises that he doesn’t let other people push him around. Now he needs to prove that he can do the pushing.”
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