Stronger commitment but no shortcuts to NATO and EU

Institute for European Politics
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Tbilisi for talks with President Saakashvili shortly after the war in Georgia, her statement that “Georgia will become a NATO member if it wants to”[1] caused much attention in the German media. Since Germany (among other western European states) had openly rejected US-led attempts to immediately offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan and thus paving the way for the country’s quick inclusion into the Alliance at the April 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest Merkel’s statement seemed remarkably definite. However, the German government emphasized that the Chancellor had only re-endorsed the summit’s conclusions and that no further enlargement promise had been given.[2] Indeed, despite increased pressure from the Bush administration[3], Germany retained its position that no further decision on NATO enlargement should be taken in the near future at the December 2008 NATO foreign minister meeting.[4] Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even implied that the question of NATO enlargement would distract attention from the more important question of NATO’s future role by stating: “For NATO we need such a thing like a new ‘Harmel report’ – a fundamental agreement on the future way. Too long we have postponed an honest discussion on NATO’s responsibilities whilst dealing with questions of enlargement.”[5] The German government’s current position on that issue is widely shared across the political parties. However, there are different opinions about further NATO eastern enlargement in the long run: Whereas Merkel’s conservative CDU[6] and the largest opposition party, the liberal FDP[7] do not seem to rule out Georgia’s (and Ukraine’s) NATO membership prospects in principle[8], Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s Social Democrats (SPD) and the oppositional Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) are even more cautious here.[9] The left-wing opposition party ‘Die Linke’ considers NATO as a whole as needless and therefore is against any enlargement as a matter of principle.[10]

The conflict in Georgia gave reason for German politicians to call for a stronger EU commitment towards the Union’s eastern neighbours. As Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it: “Our goal must be to conceive Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova as an integral part of a European space of security, stability and wealth.”[11] The Polish-Swedish proposal for an institutionalized ‘Eastern Partnership’ within the European Neighbourhood Policy, which predated the war but got more attention as the conflict broke out, was greeted by the German government[12] and is now seen as one main instrument to promote peace and stability in that region by the government and in parliament.[13] As this is a low priority issue which largely remains in the realm of foreign policy experts there is little disagreement among the major political parties.
Despite the German population’s approval for further EU enlargement hitting a new record low of now only 26 percent in the recent Eurobarometer poll[14], there has been no change in the government’s position on that issue. Germany supports current membership negotiations with Croatia and the long term European aspirations of the countries of the Western Balkans,[15] although this is also a rather barely discussed low priority issue. Despite supporting their membership perspective, Germany does not rush the Western Balkan countries to join the EU, especially after the experience of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s premature accessions. Member of Parliament, Stephan Eisel (CDU), recently urged: “Membership negotiations are no educational process to reach the conditions of accession but the negotiations are about organizing the accession of countries that have reached these conditions. […] I am very sceptical of premature accession offers for example to Serbia.”[16] Also, the malfunctioning of the judiciary and high levels of corruption in Croatia are seen as serious obstacles for a swift conclusion of negotiations in 2009. Much more controversy lies in the question of Turkey’s possible membership: Here the parties in the current grand coalition government of Merkel’s CDU/CSU and Steinmeier’s SPD take opposite views. The CDU/CSU is against Turkey joining the EU mainly for value and identity based reasons as well as geographical reasons.[17] Instead, the party prefers the concept of a vaguely defined ‘privileged partnership’.[18] The SPD, in contrast, supports Turkey’s membership negotiations, which have started under the former SPD-led, Schröder government. This dilemma of contrary positions of the ruling parties, has led to the official German government’s position that Germany at least stands by its commitment of carrying on open negotiations without prejudicing any outcome.[19] As Germany will observe a general election this autumn, a new constellation of government might bring a new official German position on that issue.

[1] Angela Merkel at a press conference with Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, 17 August 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[2] Cf. remarks by the German government's spokesman Thomas Steg, quoted in Ö1 Inforadio: Merkel: “Georgien wird NATO-Mitglied”, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[3] Cf. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: Washington macht Druck, 22 October 2008.

[4] Cf. Süddeutsche Zeitung: Nato weist USA in die Schranken, 3 December 2008.

[5] Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Partnerschaft wagen – für eine Erneuerung der Sicherheitspolitik im 21. Jahrhundert – Namensartikel von Außenminister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 4 December 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[6] Christian-Democrat Party.

[7] Free Democratic Party.

[8] Cf. interview with CDU/CSU parliamentary foreign policy spokesman Eckart von Klaeden: Überdenken der europäischen Russland-Politik erforderlich, 14 August 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009); press release of FDP parliamentary foreign policy spokesman Werner Hoyer: Die Bundesregierung muss bei ihrer Zurückhaltung hinsichtlich eines NATO-Beitritts Georgiens bleiben, 18 August 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[9] Cf. interview with SPD parliamentary foreign policy spokesman Gert Weisskrichen: Georgien hat keine Prämie verdient, in: Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung, 8 September 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009); press release of Bündnis90/Die Grünen parliamentary faction: NATO-Außenminister müssen Zeichen der Entspannung setzen, 2 December 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[10] Cf. press release of ‘Die Linke’ parliamentary defense and disarmament policy spokesman Paul Schäfer: Bundesregierung muss NATO-Osterweiterung stoppen, 24 November 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[11] Speech of Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the conference of ambassadors in Berlin, 8 September 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[12] Cf. Poland's ‘Eastern Partnership’ set for summit approval, 17 June 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[13] Cf. speech of Angela Merkel in Tallinn, 26. August 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009); Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Partnerschaft wagen, op. cit.; press release by the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction: Union positioniert sich zu aktuellen Themen der EU. Klausurtagung der Arbeitsgruppe Angelegenheiten der Europäischen Union, 9 September 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[14] Cf. Standard Eurobarometer 70, Nationaler Bericht: Deutschland, Executive Summary, p. 8.

[15] Cf. speech of Angela Merkel in Zagreb, 11 May 2007, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[16] Stephan Eisel, in: Deutscher Bundestag: Stenografischer Bericht. 175. Sitzung, Plenarprotokoll 16/175, 17 September 2008, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).

[17] Cf. Barbara Lippert: Wait-and-See. Attitudes of German Stakeholders, in: Nathalie Tocci (ed.): Talking Turkey in Europe: Towards a Differentiated Communication Strategy on Turkey, Rome 2008, pp. 135-160, here p. 142.

[18] Cf. ibid., p. 145.

[19] Cf. CDU, CSU and SPD coalition agreement: Gemeinsam für Deutschland. Mit Mut und Menschlichkeit, 11 November 2005, available at: (last access: 21 January 2009).